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Lebanon’s labor law does not include foreign workers, allowing real estate developers to house them in inhuman conditions.
Pick any mid- to upper-class residential project in Lebanon and you will more often than not find the floor plan featuring a small room with the label of “maid’s room.” Through ubiquity, this label and the architecture it signifies have long passed the stage of normalization not only in Lebanon but also in other parts of the Arab world such as Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia where middle and upper class families rely on cheap manual labor in the form of predominantly female foreign workers to maintain households. The Lebanese case, however, serves as one where a) land per capita is one of the lowest in the world and b) a neoliberal construction law that is deliberately relaxed in order to favor the monetary profit of the developer at the expense of the quality of the built environment.
Private apartment blocks and bourgeois villas are primary sites where a veritable combination of local taste and maximum land exploitation, with a backdrop of racist law, results in workers’ spaces that are at best substandard and often gravely oppressive. In light of recent and ongoing demonstrations by domestic workers in Lebanon and of their growing struggle to push the Lebanese government to ratify the International Labor Organization Convention 189 and abolish the Kafala system, it is imperative to call out certain laws and practices in contemporary Lebanese architecture as concrete manifestations of institutional racism against foreign domestic workers, in both the public and private sectors. Within Foucault’s more general and elusive concept of heterotopia, I will argue that the maid’s room qualifies as a subgroup, the ‘heterotopia of deviation.’
Legal frameworks: Kafala system and Lebanese Construction Law
For those unfamiliar with the workings of the domestic worker industry in the Arab world, the sponsorship (kafala) system places foreign workers, usually hailing from Ethiopia, India, Philippines, Bangladesh, or Nepal, under the sponsorship of a citizen or agency while giving the sponsor control of the worker’s working conditions, mobility, and legal documents. If an irreconcilable conflict arises between the two parties, the worker faces risk of losing their legal status in the country and deportation. In the case of domestic workers, passports are often withheld from the women by the families they serve, supposedly for the fear of runaway theft. […]