Kept in the dark: Domestic migrant workers face media blackout

For many migrant domestic workers, leaving for a foreign place also means losing touch with the political situation back home. It can take months for migrant workers in Lebanon to learn of events and developments in their countries, as workers often endure long working hours, low pay, lack of access to the news, and for some, no communication with their families. Simba Russeau looks at how migrant domestic workers keep up with the news.
Lebanon Domestic Worker
Madagascan women celebrate Independence Day at the Notre Dame church in Badaro. July 2009. © Simba Russeau.

BEIRUT, July 16, 2009 (MENASSAT) — Abbey trained as a nurse and French interpreter at a military hospital in Antsiranana Bay, which is located along the northeast coast of Madagascar. It is considered one of the largest natural harbors in the world and the second commercial port of the island. During the three years Abbey worked at the hospital they cared for many Arab seamen whose ships were stationed for three months at a time along the coast. Because the hospital was a French-run operation, the director accepted an offer to send a nurse to Lebanon for three years to learn Arabic so that she would be better equipped to care for those in need of treatment.

Abbey was presented with a three-year contract, which included a car to transport her to the hospital, a lot of work hours and a salary of $1,000 per month. However, when she arrived, she was placed in a Lebanese household with another Madagascan woman, and the two were expected to take care of the house, three kids and a newborn.

“We didn’t sleep day or night, we had to be up whenever the baby cried. The baby was never supposed to cry. We didn’t even have time to shower or eat during the day because we were always rocking him so he [wouldn't] cry. It was like that for two-and-a-half years,” Abbey said. “They didn’t even used to give us leftovers to eat. With our small salary of $150 we had to give the employer money so she would buy food for us. They didn’t even used to buy us toothpaste. What little we made, we used to buy food. So basically we were working for free for the Lebanese.”

While under contract, Abbey was never allowed to use the phone or send letters to her family, so for two and a half years she never knew what was going on in Madagascar and her family didn’t know if she was alive. Eventually she ran away, and for the past ten years has been working as a freelancer.

According to Abbey, even if she were allowed to watch the news once a day it would be of no benefit, because all TV stations are in Arabic and the few that are in French only deal with European issues. If Madagascar is mentioned in the news, the report is brief and doesn’t offer in-depth information of what is actually happening on the ground.

Little-to-no time

Madagascar, an island country located in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa, has experienced a series of assassinations, military coups and election disputes since gaining independence from France in 1960. The latest violence and struggle for power took place in January of this year, when more than 170 people were killed.

“I found out about the coup from my brother, who called me. There isn’t much on television to keep us updated. But if I was still under contract I would have never known,” said Abbey.

Diana, who is also from Madagascar, is currently working under contract and is not given any days off, only finding out what is happening in her country through random and seldom opportunities.

“I had no access to news or contact with people from the community or my family back home. I happened to see another Madagascan while walking the dog and she mentioned that there was a coup,”  “It’s now July and I’m just finding out what is going in my country.”

During the last three decades the region has experienced a large influx of migrant domestic workers from Southeast Asia and Africa. Although there are currently over 200,000 domestic workers in Lebanon, very little information is provided to these women in terms of media coverage.

Freelancers are always able to connect with family or friends from the community to find out what is happening back home, but for those under contract and unable to leave the house, they take whatever moments they can when the "Madame" is not looking to meet with other women on the balcony. If the other worker is granted access to speak with family then she will become the source of information for other women in the area.

It is always easy to say that the Lebanese and the Arab media are once again responsible for not granting migrant workers rights, but is it actually the responsibility of the workers’ embassies and the Lebanese agencies they work with. For instance, the Philippine Embassy, which is by far the most conscious of their workers' needs, provides them with several blogs and online employment sites, not only detailing their rights, but also providing news on faulty recruitment agencies and current news from the Philippines.

In fact, the embassies could act as a portal for news and media for their migrants abroad or better yet could encourage the Lebanese government to allow, for example, networks to air a Madagascan station, like they do Sri Lankan and Sudanese stations. Of course, the main problem is finding time for the workers to catch a glimpse of what is happening back home and also for those under contract to be given normal working hours, rather than the 24-hour, 7-day a week schedules most are forced to adhere to.


Bernadette, a 32-year-old single mother from Sri Lanka, needed a means to provide for her daughter. The option of working overseas sounded very promising at the time.

For almost 3-years she has been working in Lebanon as a domestic worker. Every day, Bernadette wakes at 6am to endure 18 hours of grueling labor. Because she works in a remote location, she sometimes asks visitors to buy copies of a Sri Lankan newspaper, which can be found at most Sri Lankan shops in the Dora or Hamra neighborhoods of Beirut, as well as a phone card so that she can contact her family.

From 1983 until the present, there has been an on and off civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist movement seeking an autonomous state in the northern and eastern part of the country.

“We have a big problem in Sri Lanka. My brother told me that sometimes the fighting is really bad, but because my family is in Colombo it doesn’t affect them as much. Things were quiet for a while, but after they caught the head Tamil leader now I don’t know what will happen,” said Bernadette.

This past Sunday, Madagascan domestic workers celebrated Independence Day, which was last month. At the time, country organizers saw no reason to celebrate due to the political situation in the country. However, since it was the only opportunity for many women to leave the house, they decided to carry on with the events and held a celebration last week.

“You know I had one girl come to me and ask me if there were problems in Madagascar and I told her yes, but at the beginning of the year,” said community leader and social worker Aimee.

“I worry a lot about the situation in Madagascar, because it changes often but the problem is that the government never thinks about the people. Currently, foreigners come to the region to cultivate the land by growing medicinal plants for export. They establish factories, and it’s countries like France who will benefit while the people’s quality of life decreases and poverty increases,” added Abbey.

“If we return, then more poverty and death [will] await us.”

The media is one of the most powerful means of informing the masses of social issues related to their home countries, such as unemployment, war, and political instability. Little or no access to media outlets can directly - or indirectly - affect the performance of migrant workers.

However, having access to information, family, weekly interactions with friends from the same country and media - be it online or through word of mouth - can play an important role in aiding the workers' decision to return home, or can give them the strength to continue working, since information has the ability to put the mind at ease.