Domestic workers

“Thank you Soma”: ILO documentary explores relationship between migrant domestic workers and Arab youth

On the occasion of International Migrants Day, the ILO premieres a new documentary that aims to challenge common perceptions about migrant domestic workers.

Feature | 18 December 2018

BEIRUT (ILO News) – Like millions of others, Soma, now 57, left her home, friends and young children to become a domestic worker and provide for her family. Some 30 years later, she travelled to her home village in Sri Lanka with Nour Sidani, the 24-year-old Lebanese woman she helped raise.

Their physical and emotional journey is depicted in a documentary – “Thank you Soma” – developed by the ILO. The film is to premiere in Beirut on December 18, which is marked as International Migrants Day.

The women’s trip to a small village near Kandy, Sri Lanka provided the two an opportunity to reflect on their relationship. 

“I’ve known Soma my whole life – and I thought I knew her completely. However going on this journey allowed me to see her whole life story and think of her in a different way. I’m forever grateful for everything she has given me and my family,” says Nour Sidani.

“Nour also changed a little bit when we came here [to Sri Lanka]. She learned about me. Maybe she now feels what I feel”, says Soma, whose full name is Sumanalatha Harispattuwale Gedara.

The documentary aims at encouraging thought and dialogue about domestic work, and will be screened and discussed at schools, universities and among community groups across the Arab States region.

“With this film we hope to challenge pervasive social perceptions about domestic work, and show the issue from a new perspective,” says Dr Ruba Jaradat, ILO Regional Director for Arab States. “We also hope to engage Arab youth in the conversation about migrant domestic workers’ rights, and encourage them to think about the role of domestic workers in their families and society.”

Around the globe, there are more than 67 million domestic workers, of whom 11.5 million have migrated, including 3.16 million who work in the Arab States region.

Despite being typically undervalued and not seen as ‘real work’, domestic work makes an enormous contribution to economies and societies – supporting households, enabling greater female labour force participation, and providing vital care services for children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

In spite of efforts to strengthen the legal and regulatory structures in the Arab States region, social norms contribute to the continuation of abusive and exploitative practices such as withholding workers’ wages and passports, failing to give workers a weekly rest day, or disregarding maximum daily working hours.

Carol Mansour, who directed the documentary, says she hopes the film will help change attitudes and lead to real improvements. “Soma and Nour have bravely shared their story with the world in the hope of inspiring change,” she says.

The film was produced with funding from the UK Department of International Development (DFID) under the ILO’s Work in Freedom Programme, and from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) under the ILO’s Regional Fair Migration Project in the Middle East (FAIRWAY).