Leaders of Change – Teresa Pontillas
“My job does not stop here. I want to reach out to as many migrant domestic workers as possible and help them in my own way."
“In 2010, I was passing by Hamra street in Beirut when I saw a woman holding a sign that said, ‘Migrant domestic workers are dying at a rate of one per week.’ Even though this is only an estimate, I have been living here for a long time and there are so many suicide cases. This motivated me to create an alliance to support migrant domestic workers and help them meet their needs.”
Teresa meets with her fellow co-founders of the Alliance on Saturdays—their only day off—to package 100-150 food assistance boxes to distribute among migrant domestic workers in need. The Alliance, one of several informal worker-led organizations working to support migrant domestic workers in Beirut, provides a range of support including connecting those in need to shelters, livelihood services and clinics that are offering COVID-19 treatment free of charge.
“I personally reach out to the migrant domestic workers to check on their wellbeing and help them know who and where to ask for help if needed and refer them to organizations that have the means and capacity to aid the workers,” says Teresa. “So far, the Alliance has helped over 1000 migrant domestic workers with their services.”
Lebanon is home to 250,000-300,000 domestic workers, most of whom live in dire conditions and are regulated by the Kafala (sponsorship) system, a heavily unbalanced employer-migrant worker relationship that impedes migrant workers’ freedom of movement and their right to terminate employment or change employers, amongst other harmful practices.
As the economic situation worsened in Lebanon, affecting both Lebanese and non-Lebanese, and in the challenging context of the COVID-19 lockdown, many workers have been laid off from work under arbitrary termination or have found themselves working for less than USD 100 per month. As domestic workers are excluded from the Lebanese Labor Law, justice for this group is often not prioritized.
Teresa says, “I encourage workers to know more about the International Labor Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), which will help them acknowledge and advocate for their rights within their workplace and with their employers.” She believes that a Unified Standard Contract should be implemented as a first step, so employers follow and abide by what is agreed upon and stop potential exploitation of migrant domestic workers.
“My job does not stop here. I want to reach out to as many migrant domestic workers as possible and help them in my own way. Women face many struggles daily, but despite all odds, we will prevail, and we believe in ourselves.”