For Domestic Workers, Apps Provide Solace — But Not Justice

In 1975, Myrna Padilla, then 15, was singing at a festival in town when a woman from faraway Manila approached her. She told her that she was beautiful, that she was special, and that she had a future as a singer in Japan — a way out. The daughter of a poor fisherman in Loay, a seaside village on the provincial island of Bohol in the Philippines, Padilla spent her days diving for seaweed to sell at the market and dreamed of becoming a lawyer who could one day buy a new roof for her family’s leaky hut. The woman promised Padilla she would make so much money that she could save her parents from poverty. Dazzled, Padilla accepted the offer and dropped out of school. Her father gave her his best trousers and shirt to wear for her big trip, and she followed the woman back to Manila. “I didn’t know what a human trafficker was then,” Padilla said. “All I saw was an angel from heaven.” 

When she arrived, the woman told her that she needed to work off her recruitment fees and the price of her boat ticket from Bohol. For a year, Padilla worked without pay as her house help, cleaning and washing laundry until her hands were raw. “I was a slave,” Padilla said. Finally, the woman took her to audition for a singing gig before a group of men, who began groping her. When she slapped one of them, the opportunity disappeared. Banished from the recruiter’s home, she worked odd jobs in Manila, got married, and had children. To give them a better life, she became a domestic worker, first in Singapore, then in Taiwan. By 1997, she was living in Hong Kong, where she had gotten a job as a live-in domestic worker for a family. For two years, she slept on her employer’s kitchen floor. To shield her skin from the cold linoleum during the winter, she would lie on pieces of cardboard she retrieved from the sidewalk. Often, her employers wouldn’t give her enough to eat, and she would go hungry.

By 1999, things had turned around. She found a job with a kinder family, nannying for an eight-year-old boy named Jonathan. When his parents bought him a new computer, she eyed it suspiciously, watching as a pointer made the answers to his math homework materialize and vanish onscreen. She thought it was magic — Jonathan told her it was “a mouse.” “I didn’t see a mouse like this in my fishing village,” Padilla told him, “but we have plenty of rats.” Eventually, he taught her to type, introduced her to the internet, and set up her first email account. She began searching for her own way out.

In 1999, she founded the Mindanao Hong Kong Workers Federation, a Filipino workers’ rights group. She helped domestic workers set up their email accounts, navigate Hong Kong’s thorny immigration system, negotiate contract extensions, and defuse conflicts with their employers. In 2001, she tried to start a blog to give workers the knowledge they needed to protect themselves. “I didn’t care if I wrote it in a mix of Bisaya, Filipino, and English, as long as I could deliver the message,” Padilla said. “You cannot assert your rights if you are not empowered.”

Myrna Padilla, once a domestic worker in Hong Kong, runs a free app to help migrant workers adapt to their new lives.
Photo by John Uy for Rest of World
For many of the estimated 11.5 million migrant domestic workers around the world, such empowerment seems like an impossible dream. The vast majority are women who have left home to work in places where they’re unlikely to know anyone, speak the local language, or understand their legal rights. Hidden inside their employers’ homes, they’re beyond the view of the law and sometimes suffer treatment that meets the International Labor Organization’s definition of modern-day slavery. Some are held in debt bondage through usurious loans taken out to pay for their passage from home. Others are denied wages and face physical abuse.

Their distance from home and isolation have made migrant domestic workers into eager adopters of technology. They raise children living thousands of miles away over video calls and commiserate over long chat messages with other domestic workers whom they may never meet in person. In lively Facebook groups, they run sideline businesses selling food from their home countries, help one another parse labor contracts, and trade tips on using pressure cookers. They exchange memes about washing laundry as well as selfies from hikes. But desperate pleas for help are also common: What do I do if I’m not being paid? What will happen to me if I try to escape? Many share news articles about domestic workers: a woman in Kuwait starved and murdered by her employers, another who leapt off a high-rise building to her death.

Such groups foster a sense of community and solidarity. And newer platforms aimed at these workers — apps that facilitate money transfers or help them report abuse — can even offer a sense of autonomy. But these moments are fleeting. The liberating potential of these technologies, in other words, remains an open question.

The Bourj Hammoud neighborhood is home to many of the thousands of migrant domestic workers in Beirut.
Jacob Russell for Rest of World
In 2017, Rahel Zegeye, an Ethiopian domestic worker in Beirut, found a crumpled note on the balcony of the apartment where she worked. It was from Jenny (a pseudonym to protect her identity), a Filipina working in an apartment one floor above. She had been locked inside by her employers since she arrived in Lebanon seven months earlier, and she needed Zegeye’s help to escape.

Jenny’s friend, another Filipina, had promised to take her to the Philippine embassy if she could find her way to a meeting spot downtown. But Jenny didn’t know where in Beirut she was and had no money. In the note, she explained her predicament to Zegeye. She asked Zegeye for her phone number, which Zegeye wrote in thick black marker on a cupboard door, large enough for Jenny to see from the floor above. Zegeye helped arrange her getaway, slipping 5,000 Lebanese pounds, about $3.33, under the doormat. Using the money as cab fare, Jenny met up with the friend, who took her to the Philippine embassy and, eventually, home. Before Jenny left, she wrote Zegeye an effusive note, decorated with drawn hearts and professing her friendship and gratitude, and slipped it under her doormat. 

In Lebanon, there are an estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers. More than half are Ethiopian, and about 15%, the second-largest group, are Filipina, with the rest from places including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Ghana. Labor law in Lebanon does not protect them — which is to say, domestic workers don’t count as employees under the law. Basic protections, like capped working hours, don’t apply to them. Instead, the terms of their employment are governed by the kafala, or sponsorship, system, a set of norms, memos, and enforcement practices that effectively leave domestic workers at the mercy of their employers. As a result, Lebanese courts only rarely prosecute domestic-worker employers over allegations of abuse, and the vast majority of even the most grievous injuries go unpunished. 

The Redeemed Christian Church of God in Beirut has a large African congregation, drawn from the thousands of migrant workers who live in the city.
Jacob Russell for Rest of World
Reliable data on the conditions Lebanon’s domestic workers endure is rare. Mistreatment and abuse happen behind closed doors, making it unlikely that victims will report it to the police. Stories of physical and sexual abuse are so common that advocates believe it remains prevalent, along with violations of basic rights: passport confiscation, long working hours, the denial of days off. In 2008, a Human Rights Watch survey of foreign consulates found an average of one death a week among foreign domestic workers in Lebanon, most from suicides or failed escape attempts. When Human Rights Watch attempted to update the survey in 2018, the consulates declined to participate. 

In times of distress, migrant domestic workers turn to informal community networks. Sometimes, this means rushing to the nearest Ethiopian- or Filipina-looking woman on the street after escaping from an abusive employer. Other times, they escape by cloaking themselves under stashed-away abayas and paying for cabs to underground safe houses with cash secreted away by accomplices. Still, other crises call for more inventive solutions.

Zegeye, 40, arrived in Lebanon in 2000 for a domestic-worker job. Soon, her employer began withholding her wages and forcing her to sleep on the floor of his teenage son’s room. The boy would roll on top of her in the middle of the night; she feared he might one day do worse. After a clandestine escape, she found a job with an Armenian-Lebanese man named Pierre, her employer for the past 16 years. He has supported Zegeye’s efforts to protect and advocate for Ethiopian migrant workers. 

One evening this past March, Rest of World met with Zegeye in Pierre’s apartment in downtown Beirut. The air swirled with the woodsy, ecclesiastical smoke of Ethiopian frankincense. In her room, decorated with a cheery pink-flower-patterned bedspread and a ruffled pillow in the colors of the Ethiopian flag, rested a tray of half-empty cups and a pot of spiced coffee. One of Zegeye’s friends, a fellow domestic worker, had come by for a visit. She smiled as she zipped up her hoodie and left. A few moments of laughter and socializing over coffee can feel like a rare respite for many Ethiopian women. In many of the homes where the women work, they’re treated as filthy and undeserving, Zegeye explained. “You don’t eat from the same plate. You don’t drink from the same cup. [If] I want to drink coffee, the madam says, ‘No, no, no, the coffee is too expensive.’”

Zegeye is the founder of a domestic-workers collective called Mesewat, which operates seven regional WhatsApp groups for domestic workers in Lebanon. Zegeye keeps their photos, locations, and biodata stored in binders. Mesewat’s group for Beirut, its largest, has more than 100 members. 

Mesewat often deals with matters of life and death. Zegeye recounted an incident in which a member was hit by a car in one of Beirut’s outer suburbs. Before the Lebanese woman who hit her could flee the scene, another Ethiopian woman, who saw the crash from a shop across the street, reported it to the group; Zegeye called an ambulance. “Who has ever heard of such a thing?” she said. When another woman was found under a bridge with severe burns from electrocution, the Red Cross alerted Zegeye. She arranged for the women of the group to pay regular visits to the victim at the hospital where she spent the next six months in recovery. They brought her spiced stew and injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread. With justice out of reach for many Ethiopians in Lebanon, they must “come together to help each other,” Zegeye said. “For migrant workers, you don’t have a law. You don’t have control … You don’t have anything.”

When a case exceeds Mesewat’s capacity to help, they refer it to This Is Lebanon, an advocacy and rescue organization for the country’s domestic workers. This is Lebanon started out as a Facebook-based community founded by Dipendra Uprety and Priya Subedi, two former migrant workers from Nepal. These days, it is run by a team of five caseworkers, former residents of Lebanon now living outside the country. They field allegations from domestic workers or their concerned family members of abuse, withheld pay, and other mistreatment, and negotiate directly with employers on their behalf. While the group is known to post photos and names of the accused online and label them as “slaveholders,” it settles most disputes without doing so. The threat of being publicly shamed before This is Lebanon’s nearly 100,000 Facebook followers is enough to give it leverage. Due to the adversarial nature of their methods, caseworkers keep their identities secret to avoid retaliation.

One case from November 2019, detailed on the This is Lebanon page, involved a Lebanese diamond dealer who allegedly failed to pay the full salaries of two Filipina domestic workers for several years. In messages to This Is Lebanon, the women explained that their employers had refused to let them leave their jobs. In a strongly worded post on its Facebook page, This Is Lebanon repeated their accusations of denied pay. It also included the names, social media handles, photos, and business addresses of the diamond dealer and his wife. Eventually, the employer released one of the women, who flew back to the Philippines. 

Because abusive employers have been known to monitor or restrict the communications of their domestic workers, This Is Lebanon warns women in the most precarious situations to delete exchanges or send them via Signal, the encrypted-chat app, using its disappearing-message feature. When employers punish their workers by confiscating their cell phones, the group arranges to have secret cell phones hidden inside the home where they work.

Faustina Tay, a Ghanaian woman, feared for her life after she was beaten.

What started as a sideline project for This is Lebanon’s original founders has grown into a full-time job. The organization said it receives thousands of messages from distressed domestic workers each month, and that it has helped more than 125 domestic workers secure tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages — the equivalent of 28 years of payment for the women’s labor. But its antagonistic methods have also drawn scrutiny from Lebanese authorities and retaliation from targeted employers, including libel lawsuits, a takedown order against its website, and a complaint filed with Interpol to interrogate Uprety.

Other organizations that advocate for domestic-workers’ rights, like Amnesty Lebanon or Human Rights Watch, declined to comment on This Is Lebanon’s tactics. But they do say that ending the mistreatment of domestic workers requires all possible approaches. Many domestic workers have expressed their gratitude for an organization they see as standing up for their rights. “We struck a nerve,” said Kyle Lawrence of This is Lebanon. 

There are limits to what it can do, however. On March 12, 2020, Faustina Tay, a 23-year-old Ghanaian domestic worker, left This Is Lebanon an audio note on WhatsApp. She had just been beaten. “I feel so weak,” she said, breathless and in tears. “It’s paining me so much. Please, help me. Please, I want to go back to my country for treatment. Please, I’m going to die here. Please, help me.”

In an audio note, Tay described her pain and begged for help.Two days later, Faustina was found dead in her employer’s parking lot. The Lebanese police ruled her death a suicide — a finding This is Lebanon disputes.

Photos by Jacob Russell for Rest of World

Rosa Worko, a domestic worker from Ethiopia, has been living in Lebanon for four years.Driven to desperation, many domestic workers around the world clearly need innovative solutions. Angela Kintominas, a lawyer and researcher for the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said the most useful new digital services are those developed in collaboration with migrant-worker organizations. Such groups can provide local context and on-the-ground experience with privacy and data security, she said. Whether all the emerging services follow that prescription is another matter. 

Consider HelperChoice. Founded by a French expat couple in Hong Kong, the app allows employers to scroll through photographs and listings of prospective domestic workers and features a chat function enabling two parties to agree to terms along with a Yelp-like forum for employers to review domestic workers. (Domestic workers cannot review their employers.) In a given month, the app will post listings for about 15,000 prospective employees and 8,000 employers.

But some advocates see HelperChoice’s founders’ lofty ambitions — “eradicating modern slavery and revolutionizing the employment agency industry through technology” — as overblown. Daisy Mandap, the editor of The Sun Hong Kong, and an advocate for Filipino domestic workers, has argued that there’s a conflict of interest at the heart of HelperChoice: Its primary duty is to make a profit — a two-week subscription to access listings of potential workers costs potential employers — not push for legislative changes that will improve migrant workers’ rights. This conflict is already apparent in Saudi Arabia, one of HelperChoice’s largest markets, where it gained 10,000 new users between September of last year and this April. The country offers no meaningful labor protections for domestic workers, as Mahee LeClerc, the app’s head of business development, acknowledges. Meanwhile, the company continues to rack up paid subscriptions.

Hong Kong is home to a large group of domestic workers, like these women from Indonesia.
Photo by Mood Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images
Recognizing the opportunity, a growing crop of tech companies is building apps for domestic workers. Malaysia’s MyCash and Dubai’s GoRise facilitate money transfers across borders, ensuring that workers’ remittances find their way back home. Colombia’s Symplifica claims to improve safety and labor conditions. Booking apps like Mexico’s Mi Dulce Hogar and South Africa’s SweepSouth help domestic workers find jobs. Dubai’s SmartLabour provides consumer services, and Brazil’s Laudelina provides lists of legal resources alongside private social networking for domestic workers. Absher, a government-funded app in Saudi Arabia, allows users to access a wide range of government services, including monitoring border crossings.

Critics say this allows employers to track the movements of their migrant employees. “These are vulnerable populations, and collecting sensitive data from vulnerable populations carries significant risk,” Kintominas said. If a phone were taken away from a domestic worker, an abusive employer might gain access to data stored on it. Automatic location-tracking technology, if misused, could place workers at risk of physical harm. She also pointed to the hurdle of obtaining funds, a challenge This Is Lebanon now faces. It’s one thing to sponsor a hackathon, she said, but quite another to sustain an ongoing operation to serve migrant workers’ needs. “It’s not just funding to develop an app.”

Padilla’s app, called OFW Watch, has a network of 50 volunteers around the world.
Photo by John Uy for Rest of World
In 2001, Myrna Padilla’s venture into online publishing took a turn. Frustrated by her blog’s unintuitive and buggy user interface, she sent a detailed list of complaints to the software company that made the platform. (Because of a nondisclosure agreement she signed, Padilla cannot mention it by name.) To her surprise, the company wrote back — and offered her a job as a quality-assurance tester. Despite some hesitation, she accepted. For the next five years, she was a nanny who moonlighted as a tester.

By 2006, Padilla had left her job in Hong Kong as a domestic worker to start Mynd Consulting, a product development firm in Davao, in the Southern Philippines. The blogging platform became her first client, funding her to hire a team of Filipino programmers. When the recession hit in 2008, she marshaled idle programmers to build what eventually became OFW Watch, a free app to help migrant workers adapt to their new lives. (OFW is the initialism for “overseas Filipino workers,” of whom there are about 2.2 million globally.) The features draw on Padilla’s personal experience of the anxieties of the migrant, newly arrived at an unfamiliar airport: dark skinned, dragging a heavy bag, a brown envelope tucked under her arm stuffed with her contracts and passport, scanning the crowd for other migrants, lost but too intimidated to ask for help. 

To help ease the nerves of new arrivals, she developed a feature for her app that (much like popular dating apps) uses cell phone GPS information to locate nearby OFWs. They can make simple social networking groups, for sharing videos and photos, and text in private with other OFWs. The app also has country directories listing the addresses of consulates and other relevant organizations as well as a “Report Abuse” feature that allows domestic workers or their family members to notify OFW Watch’s network of more than 50 volunteers around the world.

Via an encrypted journal, they can document their abuse without fear of discovery. This feature also helps women gather proof if they are raped. Padilla told Rest of World that, when a woman hears a man rattling her door, she can activate the journal’s video feature and record the encounter. She can take time-stamped photographs of her bruises and upload them to the journal — evidence that will last long after the bruises have healed. Photos and videos documented in an OFW Watch journal can be sent directly to the Philippine Overseas Labor Office, which has the authority to protect or rescue the worker. For workers in the Middle East, the app allows them to send reports of abuse to offices they may be unable to reach in person. With the help of volunteers, the OFW Watch team coordinates with Philippine authorities in the country where the woman works, to take swift action when necessary. 

Padilla said she caught flack from her colleagues for spending resources on an app without a business model in place. She estimated that she’s assigned her team of 30 developers more than a hundred unbilled work hours, worth millions of pesos altogether (tens of thousands of U.S. dollars), to develop the OFW Watch app between paying projects. Then, in 2019, Resiliency Technologies, an American firm, started licensing the platform to provide mental health services to clients like United Way. While the company declined to disclose how much the license costs, the agreement has allowed Padilla to make back the money she spent developing OFW Watch and further refine the technology.

Robyn Hussa, CEO of Resiliency Technologies, said she signed on to Padilla’s platform for the social networking and privacy features, which are critical for mental health data. “I was also very inspired by the mission of ending human trafficking and empowering women around the world,” Hussa said. 

“I developed it because I am one of them. I went through what they went through.”Padilla estimated that OFW Watch’s app has about 100,000 users, with another 45,000 in their country-specific Facebook pages. Texts, video, and audio uploaded into the app are encrypted to the same U.S. digital privacy standards that apply to health information. (The privacy restrictions for mental health patients on Resiliency Technologies’ app also apply to OFW Watch users.) Padilla does not sell users’ data. “My job is to protect OFWs,” she said, “not get the data from OFW so I can sell it.”

A new version of the app is set to launch this year. “I developed it because I am one of them,” she said. “I went through what they went through. I know the problems.” 

But there’s only so much an app can fix. Technology can offer opportunities to transform the migrant-worker experience, but it “cannot fix structural inequalities, missing institutional capacity or a lack of human intent,” as Kintominas, Bassina Farbenblum, and Laurie Berg wrote in a 2018 report on technology for migrant workers. 

The problem, Padilla said, is overwhelming. There are millions of Filipino migrants and far fewer officers tasked with advocating for them. But, she believes, a tech solution is out there.

“Facebook succeeds because of the overwhelming numbers,” she said. By enabling migrant communities of millions to protect themselves, Padilla says, “we can use the problem and turn it into a solution, using social media and mobile technology through their smartphones. Isn’t this a solution?”

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