When Behati left Ethiopia for Lebanon, her contract said she was going to work eight hours a day cleaning the home of a nice family. She was to be paid $250 a month. Instead, a Lebanese woman and her daughter paid her nearly half as much to work twice as long in multiple homes. If she complained, she was beaten.
Behati’s story is not unique. The Lebanese government says there are currently over 200,000 domestic workers registered in the country, although the real number is likely much higher since many work irregularly. Most come from Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh. They are underpaid and often abused by their employers. But after decades of mistreatment, migrant women are finding a new way to connect with their peers and reclaim their dignity: messaging apps.
Mobile platforms like Whatsapp, Facebook, and Viber have become the go-to source of support for women like Behati. (The names of all domestic workers in the piece have been changed as they fear that their activism will make them a target for deportation by Lebanese law enforcement.) The 26-year-old says she had been sleeping on her employer’s balcony for over a year when she decided to escape. Lack of food and exposure had made her sick so she asked her boss to take her to a hospital. The Lebanese woman refused her plea and instead threatened to deport her. So Behati fled.
Being alone in the streets of Beirut was terrifying, says Behati. “I had never spoken to anyone outside the house so I didn’t know anything,” she recalls, “I didn’t know a community existed.” Some Ethiopian women found her wandering around and helped her get the basics—a room, a phone and WhatsApp. Through the app, she was soon able to access groups full of other migrant women keen to answer all her burning questions.
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These groups are often managed by domestic workers who have been in Lebanon for many years and they tend to be exclusive to a country of origin, or sometimes language. Ethiopians alone have a dozen groups, each of which can contain hundreds of members. Most have never met each other in real life but they share similar struggles, from unpaid wages to sexual assault.
In Lebanon, domestic work is handled by the kafala, a sponsorship system common across the Arab world in which the worker is not allowed to change jobs without the permission of her employer. Given the private nature of domestic work, this arrangement provides impunity for employers to verbally and physically abuse the migrants they live with. There are no official records of abused domestic workers in the country, but NGOs believe that at least two domestic workers commit suicide every week in Beirut.
WhatsApp has become an emotional lifeline for such women, argues Zeina Mezher, the National Project Coordinator for the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Lebanon. “The worst part of domestic work is the isolation,” she explains, “and messaging apps give migrants the emotional comfort of being in touch with their loved ones, and with each other.”
These groups are more than just chat rooms—they are welfare nets. When a domestic worker leaves her employer’s home, she loses the right to work in the country or to access its healthcare, education, and banking systems. WhatsApp communities arose as a way to serve these needs. Sometimes women will come together to deliver food to a colleague who is being starved by her employer. Other times, members will mobilize to locate a missing girl. They will even raise the couple thousand dollars it takes to repatriate a body.
Now, some activists are unionizing and taking their work to the public arena. In 2016, a group of migrants launched the Domestic Workers’ Union of Lebanon, the first of its kind in the region. Since then, a splinter group named the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers has been founded in Lebanon. These unions are technically illegal. Lebanon’s labor law does not cover domestic work, which means domestic workers do not have the right to unionize. That’s why Angela*, one of the Filipino leaders of the Alliance, says texting apps are crucial. “Meeting in person can be dangerous and difficult because most of us get only one day off a week,” she says, “so we communicate mostly on WhatsApp and Facebook.”
"I only tell my mom about the good stuff, but then I worry that other girls are going to see my photos and want to come here."
Granted, there is just so much these groups can do online. For one, many domestic workers are still forbidden from having phones and, even when a woman manages to get hold of one, the unions often don’t have the means to help. Behati, who recently joined the ranks of the Alliance, recalls one night when a woman called her crying and screaming that she was being beaten up by her employer. “I knew where she was but I couldn’t go because I have no papers,” she says, “I called the Ethiopian embassy, but they refused to help.” Behati never heard from the woman again.
What's more, human rights activists now worry that using WhatsApp or Facebook could help law enforcement track and detain migrant activists. In 2016, two powerful union leaders from the Philippines were detained and deported despite having their papers in order. Since then, many migrants have chosen to stop protesting on the streets for fear of suffering the same fate.
“It is very important for domestic workers to tell their own narrative, but there are serious risks involved in using technology,” warns Farah Salka, the general coordinator of the Anti-Racism Movement in Lebanon, which manages the Migrant Community Center in Beirut. Theirs is one of the only open spaces for migrants in the country and, recently, they have begun providing workshops for domestic workers on how to safely use messaging apps and use their phones to collect evidence of abuse.
This can be the start of a powerful, digitally-savvy, movement for migrant rights in Lebanon, says Mezher from the ILO. Her organization is now advocating for employers to let domestic workers have phones. And as the cost of mobile internet continues to go down in the region, she predicts that more women will soon find their way into these subterranean networks of support.
Behati hopes so too. She now makes $300 a month cleaning homes part-time, while she attends a few university courses on Gender Studies and works as the community moderator of her own WhatsApp group for migrant women. She’s also staying in touch with her family back in Ethiopia. “I only tell my mom about the good stuff, but then I worry that other girls are going to see my photos and want to come here,” she says, “I pray they don’t.”