Photos by Adrienne Surprenant
Interview by Laurence Butet-Roch

Amy, Rose, Delphine, Bella and Mirasol are domestic workers. They moved to Lebanon from Philippines and Ivory Coast to make money to provide for their families. Yet, since the country does not guarantee the rights of these migrants, they often find themselves in an insufferable situation: working long hours with limited freedom. Sunday is their only day off; that is, for the luckiest ones.

Reporting on the situation, Adrienne Surprenant sought to understand what they do on their day off and what they know of Beirut, a city some have lived in for decades. A photo essay produced in September 2015.

Adrienne Surprenant, photographer

“The predicament of domestic workers in the Middle East, including Lebanon, is rather well-accounted for: under the kafala system, women hailing from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Cameroun, Sri Lanka and the likes attend to the wishes of their employers without necessarily having guaranteed rights. For example, even if Sunday is considered to be a day of rest, it isn’t so for all. If they disobey orders, they risk loosing their job and their status.

In the media coverage, these housemaids are often presented as victims. The reality is much more complex. Though it is true that they lose their independence and face abuse of all kinds, they also become, by the same token, their family’s breadwinner. This dichotomy explains in part the persistence of that economy.

I wanted to treat the domestic workers, not merely as slaves, but also as accomplished women who fight, who each have a unique character, a past and dreams. I wanted to understand why they accepted their fate and how they grew as individuals in that context. How do they make friends? What is their daily life like beyond their employer’s walls?

While thinking about how to showcase the variety of experiences these women face and how to address the issue of freedom, the idea of using maps emerged. It’s quite revealing to have them draw the places they know on a city plan. Mirasol, who works non-stop, knows only a few street cornes. Meanwhile, Rose, who fights for housemaids’ rights, knows all the embassies. Their personality also comes through. Bella, a keen and dynamic 31 year-old, drew squiggles, while Rose, who’s very organized, made neat circles.

Since I only had a month on site and access is restricted they have little free time and you have to dedicate a lot of it just chatting with them to gain their trust these images are just the beginning of the project. I would like to find other ways to collaborate with them; that is, to give them the opportunity to determine how they are represented and thus give them a form of agency.”

Rose Mahi, vice-president of the domestic workers’ union, herself a housemaid

“The conditions faced by domestic workers have not changed. Some habits die hard. Women continue to be imprisoned if they refuse to renew their contract with the same employer because he can take them to the police and accuse them of stealing. Our documents are still being confiscated by our employers; so we are terrified that the police will arrest us because we do not have papers. In other words, we continue to be thrown in jail for nothing. Others are sent home without the money they earned. Why? Because you have been ill and your employer had to give you medication or because you broke a glass or two, and a few plates while doing the dishes during your three years of employment. We live in a country where women have few rights. Imagine being a woman, a migrant and a domestic worker…

My experience has been quite different than most. I’m one of the lucky ones. The family that hired me was, let’s say, good. It was not rosy every day, but I knew how to impose my views. Gradually, I got to do what I do today: speak for those who can’t.

Adrienne’s photos tell the exact life story of some of us; that is, those who had luck and courage, who did not to give up, and who fought for themselves, for their survival, as well as others. They are examples for the other 200 000 migrants that live in the country. Take Delphine, she’s a fighter. She struggles with an unfavorable jobs so that her children can have what she did not: education and respect. I tip my hat off to her.”

Emmanuel Haddad, journalist based in Beirut

“I’ve always wanted to address the issue of domestic workers, but I let it linger because I wanted to avoid treating it in an unfair manner or repeat what’s already been done. Adrienne’s proposal of approaching the subject by mapping out their freedom of movement and capturing their daily life in the city was original and innovative.

The situation of domestic workers in Lebanon is similar to that of foreign workers in the rest of the Middle East: most are recruited by legally dubious recruitment agency and once in Lebanon or in the neighbouring countries, they are stripped of their most basic rights. Within the kafala system, they find themselves under the thumb of their employers, who often have paid a substantial sum of money for them and, therefore, intend to capitalize on their investment by making them work long hours for a pittance. Living in the home of their employer without a proper employment contract, they can be subjected to Herculean labor, mistreatment or abuse. In the most extreme cases, some commit suicide after years of slavery. On the flip side, some workers are welcomed by liberal families who let them take days off, participate in union activities and live their lives as any women would in Lebanon. Overall, the situation is gradually improving. But, their exclusion from the labour code and the prevalence of the kafala system continues to threaten their fundamental rights.

Talking about the fate of these workers ensures that they won’t remain in the shadow of the law. At a time when convention 189 on domestic workers has been adopted by the International Labour Organization, it serves as a way to remind Lebanon of its obligations. Finally, it is a way to support the fight which they lead through, in part, the domestic workers’ union that was established in Lebanon in January 2015.

Adrienne’s photo essay reminds us that behind each migrant domestic workers is a woman with a personal history that began long before her arrival in Lebanon and that she is much more than a housemaid or a cook. Showing Filipino ladies organizing fashion shows on their free time speaks of their aspirations. They want to prove that they are capable of much more than scrubbing the sink. And, that it is unfair to see them merely in terms of the work they do. In telling their stories as mothers, lovers and migrants, Adrienne also helps anyone who sees her images relate to these women’s lives. In this sense, Adrienne enriches the discourse about who these domestic workers are. It portraits them in another light than that of the pathetic victim or the docile servant. It’s both a unique and humanist document.

This said, it does not show the asphyxiation of the lives of the workers who are confined to their employer’s home. The testimonies of those who suffer the most from the unjust kafala system are the most difficult to access. With Adrienne, we had begun to document the life of one of them using her Facebook profile and the photographs she took of herself and of her life as a modern slave. We have yet to complete that part of the project. It would be worth pursuing.”

Adrienne Surprenant
Adrienne Surprenant is a freelance photographer based in Montreal, Canada. After studying photography at Dawson College, she spent several months in Nicaragua working for the NGO “Alternatives”. Once her mandate was over, she completed a photo essay “Waiting for the Canal” that was exhibited at Visa pour l’Image in 2015. Her images can be seen in El Pais Semanal, L’instant Paris Match, la Presse+, The Globe and Mail, Le Devoir, Montreal Gazette, La Croix, Journal Métro, Ricochet and As of January 2015 her work is distributed by Hans Lucas.
Laurence Butet-Roch
After falling in love with journalism through “Scoop”, a Quebec sitcom set inside a newsroom, Laurence Butet-Roch studied international relations at the University of British Columbia and photography at the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa that led her to become a photographer with the Boreal Collective, a photo editor and a writer. Mindful of the evolving media ecology, she is currently pursuing a Master of Digital Media at Ryerson University.