T-shirt contest aims to raise awareness of migrant workers’ plight

File - Migrant domestic workers protest as they demand basic labor rights during a march at Beirut's seaside, Sunday, April 28, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Making T-shirts could serve as one small step in connecting Lebanese university students with migrant domestic workers. At least that’s what the NGO Insan hopes, as it launches a T-shirt design competition for Lebanese art students.

“The idea is to sensitize students and get them interested in migrant domestic workers,” says Nicolas Paolino, a research and advocacy intern at Insan. “Our first objective is to create a connection between the students and the domestic workers.”

Human Rights Watch estimates that Lebanese families employ approximately 200,000 migrant domestic workers, primarily from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Nepal. The largely unregulated sector sees regular complaints over nonpayment of wages, lack of rest hours, forced confinement, confiscation of mobile phones and passports and sometimes even physical abuse. The problem is exacerbated by Lebanese law, which excludes migrant domestic workers from protections that are given to employees in other sectors.

Insan’s T-shirt design competition, which began on Feb. 24 and is accepting applications through April 21, is one of a series of creative projects that the NGO has undertaken over the past several years to raise awareness of the plight of domestic workers. They hosted a series of piano concerts four years ago, teamed up with local Lebanese designers to put on a fashion show of migrant workers’ ethnic clothing two years ago and last year, they carried out a campaign called Walk the City, in which students spent the day walking through Beirut with the migrant workers in order to get to know them.

The winning T-shirt design will be chosen by Facebook likes, and the image will then be printed on 100 shirts, which Paolino says will be high-quality so that people won’t just wear them to sleep in.

They want the general public to wear them around as a way to generate conversation.

The idea of the Voice Behind the Voice campaign is to give migrant domestic workers their say through the students, who can spread awareness of their plight to families and neighbors.

“It’s important to get the support of the youth because they have the power to mobilize,” Paolino explains, noting that many young Lebanese had quickly rallied behind Jackie Chamoun, the Olympic skier criticized by Lebanon’s former sports and youth minister for posing topless years ago.

Anais Carton, also with Insan’s research and advocacy unit, added that a lot of the students they’re trying to reach had migrant workers working in their family homes as maids. Carton hopes that the students can reach out to their parents.

“There’s a deeply held tradition of people having maids in Lebanon. We want these young people to talk to old people about how they should act,” she says. “Their maid should be considered a worker, not a member of the family.”

Paolino admits that this campaign might seem like a drop in the bucket of the vast needs of migrant workers. Even the cause itself – raising awareness of the plight of migrant workers – has been questioned by some who ask why more isn’t done for disenfranchised Lebanese.

He tells them: “If you want human rights across the country, you can’t accept any violations. Everyone needs respect in society. Human rights can’t be selective.”

To learn more about the competition, email: or visit their Facebook page:

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 28, 2014, on page 2.




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