Accessing the Invisible: Balcony Talks with Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon

by Amrita Pande

In the spirit of being a truly reflexive feminist researcher, let me start by acknowledging the critical role of three body-tools – curly hair, ambiguous looks and a strong neck – in my research on migrant domestic work in Lebanon. My appearance convinced migrant women of various nationalities—Bangladeshi, Ethiopian, Filipina, Nepalese, Sri Lankan—that I was either a “home-girl” or a foreigner just like them. This otherness that we shared encouraged many to initiate conversations about the most difficult topics: the discomfort of spending endless nights on a foldable single bed or a mat on a balcony, the grueling work hours, the insecurity of negotiating an unfamiliar language, eating unfamiliar food, the severe restrictions on mobility, and the anxiety that there was nowhere and no one to run to. Oh yes, and the strong neck came in rather handy since these conversations, especially with live-in domestic workers, were seldom across a table. While the women stood on the balcony in their employers’ house—the only “public” space that some could access—I stood on the street below or on the balcony of a building across the street.

These talks were sometimes unplanned, seldom structured and often interrupted by the potential threat of the employer making an appearance. It was not the most peaceful research setting but how else could I access respondents who are seldom, if ever, allowed to leave their employers’ house? Research methods had to be re-invented according to the context, the digital recorder abandoned and written consent forms substituted with verbal consent. For many women, this was the first time anyone had the time and energy to hear their life story, and consent was given enthusiastically. The conversations across balconies and streets sometimes lasted for only five minutes at a time and others stretched on for hours. I often ended up sitting on the side of the street scribbling down notes, much to the amusement of people walking past. This daily ritual of “balcony talks” with live-in domestic workers stretched my textbook understanding of methodological issues like access, gatekeeping, and consent. But more importantly, it gave me the privilege of being included in one of the most powerful resistive strategies devised by the most restricted workers.

Migrant domestic workers in West Asian countries remain a rather understudied group even though this region is the largest destination of migrant workers in the world, having over 7.5 million migrant women. Until recently, whatever little literature about migrant domestic work existed in this area tended to focus narrowly on the (often abusive) relationship between the domestic worker and the employer. In Lebanon, the issue has become a cause of much debate amongst the mainstream media and in reports and campaigns by non-governmental organizations. In 2011, a national report cited psychological disorder among Lebanese “madams” (woman employer) as the leading cause of violence against their “migrant maids”. Another reported that every week, one migrant domestic worker commits suicide in Lebanon by plunging from a balcony of a tall residential building. A high level of abuse, isolation and feelings of helplessness were cited as the reasons that drove these women to jump to their deaths.

Although critical in bringing international attention to the issue, in all my previous works on this topic I have argued that such reports are analytically inadequate and empirically misleading because of four interconnected reasons. One, they inevitably frame the women as victims of individual employers rather than as workers within an exploitative structure of migration and work. Two, by privatizing a structural problem of workers’ and immigrant rights violations, nation-states get absolved of their responsibilities. Three, the unilateral focus on “Madam-maid” relationships within the Lebanese household delegates domestic work to the “private” sphere and further reifies the private-public binary. Finally, such reports make invisible the powerful attempts made by the workers themselves to organize and resist the exploitative conditions.

The balcony talks, or conversations across balconies, was not a research method that I innovated but one such creative resistive tool used by the most restricted domestic workers to forge strategic worker dyads and take one step towards organizing against exploitative conditions. Across balconies, women workers consult each other on the severity of restrictions to their mobility, whether they are given access to their own passports, and the regularity of their payments. Balcony talks start resembling union meetings, with grievances and strategies being discussed even as one hangs clothes on railings. Women are advised by their allies in neighboring balconies on how to effectively negotiate days off or delicately demand regular payment of wages. Alliances across balconies sometimes set in motion a chain of events: an abused worker shares her grievances with her neighbor, who in turn consults her own employer, a community leader, or, in some cases, even an embassy representative, and the balcony becomes not just a symbolic outlet but a literal route to freedom.

Domestic work has always been a nightmare for activists wanting to organize workers because it occurs in decentralized private spaces. Unlike factory workers, domestic workers (especially live-in workers) cannot be asked to collectively organize and picket outside a factory gate. Across the world, including West Asia, labor unions have often left domestic workers behind. My two years in the research field convinced me of one thing: these invisible live-in migrant domestic workers are not relying on a union hierarchy to speak for its members, but actively devising alternative forms of mobilization. As Dorothy Sue Cobble (here) eloquently argued, creating a model of social movement whereby such “intimate unions” are recognized could potentially revitalize a man-centered labor movement and a factory-centered worker consciousness such that the mutual caring that occurs behind and beyond the usual work spaces is recognized and valued.

Amrita Pande is senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Her article,From ‘Balcony Talk’ and ‘Practical Prayers’ to Illegal Collectives: Migrant Domestic Workers and Meso-Level Resistances in Lebanon,” is published in the June 2012 issue of Gender & Society.

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