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Lebanon: Empowering Migrant Workers With Language

A community of enthusiastic young people in Beirut, The Migrant Workers Task Force, are working to support foreign domestic workers in Lebanon whose living and working conditions are often desperately unfair.

The volunteer group has only been active since January 2011, but already they have managed to attract the attention of both local and international media for their innovative approach to changing the perceptions of both workers and employers. Among their main achievements are the free language courses they offer to workers learning Arabic, English, or French every Sunday.

In Lebanon, approximately one domestic worker a week dies under murky circumstances (often described as “suicide”). Eighty percent of domestic migrant workers are not allowed to leave their employer's house at all. Their plight and rights are almost universally ignored.

Migrant Workers Task Force logoInitially the task force consisted of only Alex, Lioba, Farah, Ali, and Janie and a few other members, but recently the group has been expanding. According to Janie Shen, 24, one of the co-founders (the only foreigner one who is actually still in Lebanon) the idea for the Migrant Workers Task Force was born after newcomers to Lebanon, like herself and Alex, were shocked by the conditions of migrant workers in the country – for instance, the degrading uniforms, general mistreatment, having passports confiscated, food rationed, and only one day a week off or none at all.

In this video Janie explains more about what the Migrant Workers Task force is about:

Migrant Workers Task Force have no office or official organization, but have been meeting regularly at Zico House in Hamra and will soon relocate some of their activities to Migrant House in Nabaa. Everyone involved in the project is a volunteer, and they rely on small fundraising events to cover their costs.

Anti-racism ad by Migrant Workers Task Force

'You see a poor man, but he is a source of wealth' Anti-racism ad by Migrant Workers Task Force

Part of the success of the group is due to their talented use of social media for communication. All news and announcements are published on their blog, and they manage a group and several pages on Facebook. They also share images and videos on Flickr and a Youtube.

Among their memorable campaigns are, their anti-racism posters for International Worker's Day (featuring three language class students), a series of interviews with migrants about their conditions, and some short satirical films in response to an official campaign showing Lebanon as a paradise for tourists.

They have also hosted local migrant celebrations, like a Nepalese New Year celebration, and have helped sell African and Asian food and other migrant products.

Language classes

On Sundays workers from Nepal, Philippines, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Sudan assemble to learn languages with volunteer teachers who wish to help. They began as informal gatherings, but are now developing into more structured language lessons.

Here is a video from the languages lessons one Sunday and some testimonies of students and teachers. One teacher says, “I am offering my skills in English to let them speak for their rights.”

The language classes have become an important venue for community building. One student interviewed in the video below is Rahel Zegeye, a migrant worker from Ethiopia, who over two years put all of her earnings towards making a feature film about the experience of domestic workers in Lebanon.

In less than a year, Migrant Workers Task Force has mobilized more volunteers and goodwill than many other more established organizations. Via language and communication, they have helped migrant domestic workers in Lebanon facing a very local problem gain highly deserved international attention.

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