Myra Abdallah

Will Lebanon continue to deny domestic workers’ rights?

The proposed Migrant Domestic Workers’ Union struggles to survive as the labor minister threatens to reject it with no onus to justify doing so

Migrant domestic workers of various nationalities take photos during the launch of the first domestic workers union on 25 January 2015 at the headquarters of the National Federation of Unions for Workers and Employees in Lebanon (FENASOL) (AFP/Anwar Amro)

The “Kafala” (sponsorship) system in Lebanon has already done quite a lot to deprive domestic workers of their basic human rights. For years, workers have been denied the right of free movement, equality, just and favorable work conditions and reasonable limitation of working hours, among others, such as the right to retain their own passports as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Lebanon has for years broadly and openly violated the Declaration, even though it contributed to its drafting.


Recently, local and international organizations have been struggling to help domestic workers fight discrimination and the physical and emotional abuse they are frequently subjected to. But even with a spokesperson advocating for them, it doesn’t seem to be enough for abused foreign workers to have their rights guaranteed. Their various campaigns have achieved a certain level of awareness among employers but have not yet been able to change the Kafala system.


“It’s now time to start asking for our rights in a direct way to limit the abuse we are facing every day,” said Kamala, a 42-year-old Nepalese domestic worker.


On 25 January, a conference was held with the aim of founding a new one-of-a-kind organization: the Migrant Domestic Workers’ Labor Union (FENASOL). “A lot of male and female domestic workers attended the conference,” Kamala told NOW. “There were people from Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and many other countries. For once, we felt united and strong enough to stand up to discrimination.”


The proposal has not yet accepted by Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi, who will more likely reject it, according to his statement on Monday.


The initiative is unique in Lebanon and the Arab world in general, which hosts 30 million migrant workers, according to the United Nations, with 158,000 domestic workers legally registered in Lebanon, according to Lebanon's Labor Ministry. “Supported by the ILO [International Labor Organization], FENASOL took the initiative of creating the union and collaborated with many domestic workers employed in Lebanon and local organizations that were previously working on domestic workers' campaigns,” said FENASOL head Castro Abdallah.


“I do not face any problems in Lebanon,” said Myriam, who's from the Philippines and works as a nanny. “But I am interested in supporting this union and I attended the event on Sunday in order to help my comrades and my friends who are being abused. I am disappointed that only 18 people from the Phillipines attended, knowing that numerous domestic workers are facing problems in their employment environments. We want the Lebanese government to approve our demands in order to improve the situation of domestic workers in Lebanon.”


Although the situation of domestic workers today is slightly better in some places due to the awareness social activists and organizations have consistently raised, abuse against domestic workers is still being reported. The abuse sometimes leads to suicide in cases that are ignored by authorities.


“I wanted to commit suicide more than once,” said Shamen, a 38-year-old Sri Lankan and mother of two. “In my previous employment, I was imprisoned in the house, was not allowed to have a day off, I was beaten by my employer many times and had to work more than 15 hours a day. I kept thinking that suicide was my only solution until God saved me and my employer decided that she did not want me anymore. So I moved to a different house. Now, my situation is a lot better; I am not imprisoned anymore but I am still not able to live as freely as I have the right to.”


Thus far, the union initiative is comprised only of migrant domestic workers, but FENASOL has more extended plans. “Our target is to help migrant workers from all working categories,” said Abdallah. “The extended project will include cleaning and social services workers in addition to others. Various embassies are also supporting us and were represented during the conference.”


Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi has stated that the proposal is “illegal” and called for “advanced laws” to address the issue instead of creating what he indicates is an extralegal syndicate. It is not the first time Azzi has taken this position: “We have a labor law, a Labor Ministry, General Security and police," he told a press conference in June 2014. “Whoever feels that he is badly treated should go and refer to these [authorities].”


Despite this, Abdallah says the proposal has not been officially rejected just yet. “As of today, we have not been officially notified of a rejection. There have only been unofficial statements in the media, but none of them is official yet, and, so far, we have not been informed of any response to our proposal from any official authority,” he said.


According to lawyer Marwan Saqr, there is nothing in Lebanese law dictating that a syndicate must be exclusively Lebanese or formed exclusively by Lebanese citizens. “The syndicate’s proposal is not illegal, but it does need to be approved by the labor minister,” he told NOW. “The minister can reject the proposal with a discretionary decision without providing any justification, although his decision can be subject to a legal appeal in court.”


Abdallah confirmed that they would not send an illegal or incomplete proposal: “The proposal is 100% legal and if it is rejected, we will demand a justification.”


Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah

“I attended the event on Sunday in order to help my comrades and my friends who are being abused,” says Miriam, a Filipino nanny. (FENASOL) (AFP/Anwar Amro)

In my previous employment, I was imprisoned in the house, was not allowed to have a day off, I was beaten by my employer many times and had to work more than 15 hours a day. I kept thinking that suicide was my only solution."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    (cont'd).... which is ironically dominated by the self-declared "dispossessed" sect of this tormented and absurd country.

    February 3, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    The best way with which the foreign migrant workers can succeed is to starve the monster and vote with their feet. No one forces these workers to fly thousands of miles from their home countries to come live in the atrocious conditions in which Lebanese households put them. By depriving the disgusting Lebanese market of supply, they at least can hope to force increased wages and perhaps better working conditions, which would in turn entice more Lebanese into the market. The foreign migrant workers sector is one of a myriad of systematic abuses that are entrenched in the Lebanese economy. Just as is the case with Syrian and Palestinian workers, the Lebanese market is so skewed by special economic interests and their many Mafias that people forget one thing: It is Lebanese households, Lebanese business owners, Lebanese religious orders, Lebanese construction and industrial entities that hire low wage foreign workers...In other words, it is us, you and me, who are hiring and abusing. By bringing a foreign maid into your household, you are an accomplice to the crime. By hiring a custodian from Bangladesh, the religious retirement home where my father is lodged is an accessory to the crime. Worst of all, we hire cheap foreign labor because 1- We claim that the Lebanese do not want to do these lowly chores, when in fact 2- the only reason the Lebanese do not want to take on these jobs is because of the low wages and the threat of hiring cheaper foreigners. In other words, if we all stopped hiring foreign workers, more Lebanese can - and will - work for higher wages. I am against a Lebanese union whose members are foreign nationals. Foreign nationals have no right to unionize. Their protection should be afforded, as Ms. Abdallah argues, by the Lebanese government abiding by international laws, which means that the Lebanese government should break the back of the "kafala" Mafias whose political and sectarian affiliation we all know, which is ironically dominated by the sel

    February 3, 2015