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For Migrant Workers, a Mobile Phone Can Be a Powerful Ally

  • A woman standing in front of a window
    Anonymous from the Philippines washes up after having a few friends over for her 28th birthday in Beirut, Lebanon, 2011. Her situation is good, as her employer treats her well: she gets her salary and is free to move outside the house on her time off. “I have an obligation to help the other women in the building, who don’t have it so good,” she said. © Lucas Pernin
  • Two people making a bed
    With deft hands, Rubinah made the bed as a professional chambermaid would. She was participating in a training course in Jakarta for employment as a domestic worker in Hong Kong. During her three-month stay in the training center, her husband visited her twice a week, spending a couple of hours with her each time and bringing her treats such as her favorite ayam goreng (fried chicken) and eggs. © Sim Chi Yin/VII Mentor Program
  • A director of workers
    A log book in the drawer of a village recruiter in Indonesia contains page upon page of personal details about the women he had sent overseas: their passport photos, departure date, destination, and educational qualifications. Recruiters lament that the supply of “fresh blood” was running low—because so many village women were already working overseas. © Sim Chi Yin/VII Mentor Program
  • A woman with a book and phone
    Nining Djohar, a domestic worker who was employed in Singapore for seven years and now works with an NGO in Jakarta on migrant rights. This picture, shot during her time in Singapore, shows her on the streets of Little India using her mobile phone to contact a fellow worker who had called the “helpline” that Nining ran with a group of Indonesian domestic workers. They handed out their own mobile phone numbers on slips of paper to workers and employers in need. On her Sundays off, she paid visits to the homes of employers who had complained of problems with their workers—“she don’t know how to iron, how to cook”—and surreptitiously passed biscuits and Maggie instant noodles to bone-thin workers who said they didn’t get enough to eat and could not go out. © Sim Chi Yin/ VII Mentor Program
  • A rally
    Lebanese citizens protest against the abuse of migrant domestic workers on the occasion of International Women’s Day in Beirut on March 8, 2009. Nearly 100 years old, International Women’s Day on March 8 marks an ongoing battle to ensure equal rights for half the globe’s population on issues such as work and voting. © Ramzi Haidar/AFP/ Getty Images
  • Balconies on an apartment building in Lebanon
    Often balconies are the only form of communication that migrant women have with the outside world. Apartments in the neighborhood of Mar Mikhael, Beirut, Lebanon, 2011. © Lucas Pernin

The photographs in the slideshow above appear in the report Breaking the Isolation: Access to Information and Media Among Migrant Domestic Workers in Jordan and Lebanon.

You’re 3,000 miles from home. You live with strangers. Every day is defined by strenuous, endless tasks. You might get five hours of sleep tonight, huddled on the kitchen floor. You’re barely allowed to leave the house. No phone, no radio. What little television you watch is in a language you don’t understand. You’re cut off, not only from everything you know but also from the world around you.

This is daily life for many of the hundreds of thousands of domestic workers in the Arab region, most of whom are women. They come from all over the world—Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka—enticed by the promise of steady work. They are a vital part of the workforce. But they remain one of the most exploited and least protected groups of workers, their vulnerability made worse by their punishing isolation.

With no way to reach out for help, domestic workers are cheated out of wages, saddled with excessive workloads, and denied days to rest or travel. They report stories of food deprivation and physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. With few opportunities to form friendships or social networks, they also suffer emotionally and are prone to suicide.

Despite some progress in recent years, reports by the International Labour Organization and human rights groups suggest that harsh rules, particularly around freedom of movement and access to media, are still the norm. Some workers are more fortunate—lucking into positions with more lenient employers—but physical and psychological exile is all too common.

But what if domestic workers were no longer trapped in isolation? What if the communication gap could be bridged?

This is the starting point for a new report from the Open Society Foundations. It focuses on two countries in the region: Lebanon, where an estimated 200,000 Asian and African migrants are employed as domestic workers, and Jordan, home to another 70,000. The report asks: What kinds of information do migrant domestic workers most need? And what are the best ways to get it to them?

The study, the first of its kind, draws on interviews, focus groups, and survey data to reveal the scope of the problem and to make specific recommendations for ways to remedy it. Key themes include:

  • the need to improve education and training of workers before they travel to overseas posts;
  • the essential role of contracts, which many workers either don’t have or don’t understand;
  • the power of the mobile phone, access to which could be guaranteed; and
  • the opportunity for workers to build their own networks, including through community media ventures such as radio.

The report offers concrete ways that advocates and governments can help improve the lives of domestic workers. These are lessons that should echo not only in the Arab region, but all over the world.

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