Students backed to tackle domestic worker exploitation

When Claudette Igiraneza first flew into Beirut airport from her home country, Rwanda, she was happy to see lots of other African women.

But when she was ordered by airport staff to go and line up with the other black women it became clear that something wasn’t right. Security staff had assumed she was a migrant domestic worker, not a student.

When she got to the American University of Beirut (AUB), where she was heading to take up a Mastercard Foundation scholarship, she asked other students about the incident and was told this was a symptom of how domestic workers are treated in Lebanon.

At the airport domestic workers are told to line up and wait for their sponsor to pick them up. By this stage they have already signed a contract to work for the sponsor. But for many of them, once they hand their passport to the sponsor, their human rights quickly seem to evaporate.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Before long Igiraneza was living in Beirut and finding herself being treated as though she was one of the domestic workers.

“I would go to the supermarket and the supermarket staff would ask, ‘Where is your madame, your employer? Do you have a debit card?’ And since most of the domestic workers don’t have a bank account, the supermarket staff would often ask if the card that I was carrying was mine just to make sure I hadn’t stolen it from my employer.”

She says it is because 90% of black women in Lebanon are migrant workers, so it is the first thing people think of when they see a black woman.

However, at university she also found people not wanting to sit next to her because of the colour of her skin.

“So I was convinced that I had to do something about the racial discrimination against – and working and living conditions of – African women in Lebanon.”

Igiraneza came from a semi-rural town in Rwanda, Africa. Her father is a nutritionist and she had come to Beirut in 2016 to study for a BSc in environmental health. She was being supported by a Mastercard Foundation scholarship, and under the scholars programme she was learning about transformative leadership and being encouraged to get involved in social enterprises and think of ways she could contribute to her own or vulnerable communities in Lebanon.

She discovered that the human rights abuses are well-documented internationally by human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW). In addition to physical and sexual abuse, domestic workers suffer from delayed (or non-payment of) wages, forced confinement and are refused time off.

In fact numerous domestic workers have been driven to suicide or have died in mysterious circumstances in Lebanon, HRW reported. One high-profile case was that of Alem Dechasa-Desisa, 33, an Ethiopian domestic worker who worked as a maid and whose abuse by a labour recruiting agent was captured on film, causing a public outcry. She subsequently committed suicide in 2012.

In 2008 an HRW report found an average of one death a week of domestic migrant workers from unnatural causes, including falls from tall buildings and suicides. The high level of abuse caused some countries to ban their citizens from working in Lebanon.

At AUB, with friends from the Africa Club, Igiraneza became involved in running awareness campaigns about the conditions domestic workers face and a project on sexual and reproductive health for them.

Most of them are from countries like Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Togo and when they signed up, the contracts were in Arabic, a language of which they have no knowledge, Igiraneza says.

“In those contracts they are told they have to work eight hours a day and get one day’s break a week and basic conditions. But then when they reach Lebanon they are on very different conditions.”

She says that part of the problem is that at the airport their passports are taken away and from that point on, no matter how badly your employer treats you, you can’t leave until they give it back to you.

Exploited by employers

As a consequence, too many employers exploit the situation to treat domestic workers badly.

For example, one of the domestic workers she met through her campaigning work was a woman from Kenya who had been promised one day off a week and work limited to eight hours a day, but when she got there found she was expected to work 12 hours with no break.

Sometimes she would cook but not be allowed to eat the food; instead she was confined to eating bread, cheese and spaghetti for four years.

“She was physically and mentally harassed and developed mental health problems. She had to escape but she couldn’t leave without a passport, so couldn’t go home,” Igiraneza says.

“Another woman I met from Ethiopia, at the project on sexual and reproductive health, told us her employer raped her and when she became pregnant kicked her out of the house. But later he went to her and took the baby and now she doesn’t have any rights to her own child.”

Many women who do escape their employer end up destitute and turning to prostitution to earn a living.

As a result of the cases she came across, Igiraneza started raising awareness about the racial discrimination and living and working conditions that migrant domestic workers face.

“I didn’t feel safe or have a space off campus to advocate for this cause, so I started conducting my activism on campus. Many of the students and faculty members at AUB have migrant domestic workers. Thus I thought conducting these kinds of campaigns on campus would challenge the students and the faculty to treat their workers as human beings, not slaves.”

She and her fellow Mastercard Foundation Scholars ran workshops with speakers who work with domestic workers to talk about the situation. They also held an awareness day where they attended classes in the uniform of a domestic worker.

“It was to tell people: ‘Look, you treat me alright because I am at university, but I am no different to a domestic migrant worker in your house, so if you can respect and treat me well, you should go back to your houses and give the same respect to the worker in your house’.”

Cast onto the street

The bomb blast in Beirut in August 2020, which caused more than 200 deaths and injured 7,000 more, made hundreds of thousands of people homeless, having destroyed huge numbers of houses. This added to the nightmare for domestic workers, because many employers cast them onto the street without paying them – or giving back their passports.

“Some were protesting so that countries would repatriate them, however some of the countries they came from didn’t do anything. So a few Mastercard Foundation Scholars and I set up a GoFundMe page to fund repatriation and we raised US$4,500, enough to send 12 workers and two children back to Sudan,” Igiraneza says.

She feels having a scholarship that focuses on transformative leadership has helped her grow as a person, from the shy girl she was when she arrived in Beirut in 2016 to someone who is now confident enough to stand up for what she feels is right and use transformative leadership skills to help people around her.

“For me, transformative leadership skills include standing up for what you believe in, making an impact in your community, and inclusion of marginalised people, which in Lebanon mostly means migrant domestic workers,” she says.

Maha Haidar Makki, director of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at AUB, says the scholars programme at AUB seeks to support transformative leadership in a number of ways.

Through a social venture challenge and a social enterprise fund, mentorship and seed funding are provided.

Students are given a rich exposure to social impact work via the university’s Center for Civic Engagement, and to expertise in entrepreneurship training provided by the Center for Research and Innovation.

Continuum of capacity building

“There is a clear framework for transformative leadership that every scholar goes through. It is a continuum of capacity building workshops, exposure visits and volunteering opportunities, as well as mentorship and support in the implementation of a community-based project,” Haidar says.

“Another important aspect is the fact that the Scholars Program allows us to admit students in cohorts and we work on community building within AUB as well as across the network of institutions within the Program. This makes scholars feel empowered by being part of a network of likeminded young leaders.”

Today Igiraneza, having graduated at AUB, has moved to Scotland to study for an MSc in Global Health Policy at Edinburgh University, with ambitions to go into health policy in Rwanda – and continues to be supported by a Mastercard Foundation scholarship.

“I feel there are a lot of health inequalities globally and maybe the only way to address them is through the health policy field,” she says.

But she is still involved with her peer alumni and current scholars at AUB in giving workshops to domestic workers in Lebanon on sexual and reproductive health. However, because of COVID-19 they cannot run the workshops face-to-face and are instead conducting them virtually through recorded videos. They have received US$2,500 funding from the Mastercard Foundation to continue their work.

They also plan to supply emergency kits that include sanitary pads, infant formula and diapers to 50 domestic workers who have children, since most of them can no longer afford these necessities due to the current economic crisis in Lebanon. This is a community-based project sponsored by the Mastercard Foundation at AUB.

A webinar on ‘How can universities improve their social impact?’ is available on University World News’ YouTube channel here. The webinar was held on 27 January, with 2,200 registered participants. The panel speakers were Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of the International Association of Universities; Lorlene Hoyt, executive director of the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities; Maha Haidar Makki, director of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at the American University of Beirut; and Maryam Mohiuddin, founder and director of the Social Innovation Lab, Lahore, Pakistan.