There’s a neighborhood in Amman nicknamed “Manila Street” where many migrant workers live and congregate on their days off, setting up Filipino food markets, buying phone cards, and visiting the Western Union to send money home. Many of the Filipina women who live there are “runaways,” meaning they lack regular papers and can be arrested or exploited on the streets at any time. When I visited the area, a Filipina woman at the street market explained why police kept pulling me over. “They will try to make you their ‘girlfriend,’” she said. “Sometimes they are police and sometimes they are just pretending. They say: ‘You have iqama [residency papers]?’ If you don’t have, they ask you for money, or drive you somewhere to do fucking. Or else they can send you to jail, or back to your country. I hear too many stories like this.” Several other migrant women later told me the same thing.
I’ve been reporting on migrant domestic labor in Jordan and Lebanon since January, visiting shelters, women’s prisons, and overcrowded neighborhoods where migrant women flock together for survival, often cramming as many as a dozen people into a small apartment. Jordan has about 50,000 migrant domestic workers, of whom the largest subgroup are from the Philippines. Lebanon had nearly 170,000 registered domestic migrants in 2016. Most of them—about 105,000—are from Ethiopia, but Filipinas are the second-biggest group, at roughly 18,300.
In Lebanon, migrant domestic workers are specifically excluded from labor laws, which means they have no legal guarantee for basic rights like a minimum wage and maximum work hours or days off, and nowhere to appeal when they are verbally or physically abused. Their work contracts require that they live in their employers’ homes. When abuse happens, they have nowhere to go. A startling number of migrant women jump off balconies, dying in either suicide or failed escape attempts. Lebanese General Security, the government’s intelligence and security agency, told me that the bodies of 110 migrant women had been repatriated from Lebanon in 2016 alone. That’s more than two a week. As of mid-April, 28 more women had died in 2017.
I’ve learned to tense up every time strange men ask me if I’m Filipina, and to quickly announce my U.S. citizenship, even as I feel sick for wielding my privilege as self-defense. I didn’t think about how trapped it feels to be a migrant domestic worker until I was exposed to leering men trying to exploit me because of my Asian face. My own response has been to report on what’s happening and try to understand and expose it. But in his essay “My Family’s Slave,” Alex Tizon went beyond exposure to self-exposure, which is why his story moved me.
Reporting on systemic injustice—analyzing a broken policy and telling the stories of its victims—is crucial work. But it offers a certain kind of psychological safety: Even as you expose yourself to heart-wrenching injustice, you write about it as a professional observer, removed from any guilt or complicity. It’s much harder to tell a story of injustice that—without excusing or explaining away evil acts—nonetheless acknowledges the humanity of the perpetrator, and admits that we all have the capacity for cruelty. Confronting the conditions that can lead someone to choose evil is an important part of understanding and preventing exploitation.