Signs of hope for Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers

About one migrant domestic worker commits suicide in Lebanon a week, according to NY-based Human Rights Watch (HRW). Though workers are often manipulated into thinking they’d be treated better in Lebanon compared to other nations in the region, “Lebanon has failed to give off the image of a better place,” said Nisha Varia, a senior researcher at HRW’s Women's Rights Division, during a conversation with NOW Lebanon.
Many agents sell Lebanon as a safer country due to its significant Christian population, added Priya Subedi, an activist and coordinator at the Nepalese Consulate. “But regardless of their religion, employers abuse workers alike.”

From having their salaries withheld, to physical and sexual abuse, foreign workers, mostly women, face a number of violations, which, coupled with the often ineffective judicial systems in their host countries, leaves them vulnerable.

Luckily, however, last week Lebanon’s estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers (MDWs), in addition to the 50 to 100 million worldwide, had something over which to cheer. The International Labor Organization, the UN body that oversees international labor standards, unveiled a convention to protect MDWs’ rights. But though Lebanon’s delegation voiced its support, experts remain cautious as to how quickly the convention’s rules will be put into effect here.

The labor law in Lebanon, like in most of the region, does not include MDWs, leaving them vulnerable to abuse. From January 1, 2007 to August 15, 2008, HRW documented at least 95 MDW suicides, as well as countless cases of rape and physical abuse, and having their money withheld and movement restricted.

Speaking from NY upon her return from the ILO conference in Geneva, HRW’s Varia told NOW Lebanon she felt the reason behind the Lebanese government’s failure to respect these workers’ rights was twofold. Like elsewhere, governments avoid taking unpopular measures, such as inspecting homes for abuse of employees, she said. “They don’t want to lose their constituencies.”

Additionally, many government officials are employers themselves. “Even journalists, activists are employers of MDWs, and they will have to practice what they preach [if they endorse regulation],” she said.

But with the new convention, Varia is optimistic.

Before, governments could argue that MDWs fell under a different type of category of workers, but today such an excuse is less likely to fly, she said. But ratifying the convention will take time, she added.

“This represents an excellent step forward,” echoed Fateh Azzam, regional representative for the Middle East Office of the High Commission for Human Rights. He also highlighted the code of conduct toward MDWs adopted by the United Nations’ office in Lebanon last Friday for all UN staff members in the country.
The code of conduct, drawn up in cooperation with the ILO, lists 21 mandatory guidelines, including limiting MDWs’ working hours to 10 per day, giving them a day off and 15 days of annual leave, and rejecting the kafeel system, by which the employee is legally bound to the employer.

The latter was specifically what activists argued was missing in a recent draft law on which former Labor Minister Boutros Harb worked, stressed Rola Abimourched, the project manager of local NGO KAFA’s MDW program.

Though she stressed the draft law was a positive step, she said it did not cover workers’ social security, maternity leave and other social rights.

Hessen Sayah from NGO Caritas was equally skeptical.

“Nothing is clear or certain, whether the Lebanese government will sign and ratify the treaty or not,” he said, adding that the recent change of the Lebanese cabinet posed further challenges. “Every time a new minister or decision-maker is assigned, we have to start the lobbying process all over.”

According to Sayah, ratifying the convention will mean amending certain Lebanese laws, which requires financial and human resources.
But during a phone conversation with NOW Lebanon, the new Labor Minister Charbel Nahhas confirmed the issue was high on his agenda. “Frankly speaking, until now, I did not have the opportunity to look at the text of the convention precisely. But it is well known that the rules that govern the situation of the MDWs are not acceptable,” he said.
And yet, even if the government is keen to address the issue, many regular Lebanese, employers of MDWs or not, do not regard it as pressing.

Last Friday, members of the Migrant Workers Task Force organized a fundraiser in which the documentary “Welcome to Lebanon” was screened.

And though almost half of the crowd was foreign, co-organizer Alex Shams said that things do seem to be moving in the right direction.
Even though “every single time we ask for something, [the government] has another negative answer to give us,” said the Nepalese Consulate’s Subedi, “At least Lebanon’s civil society is being active.”

  • Fatma

    Agents sell Lebanon as safer due to its christian population?? so what are you saying Priya??Muslims are more likely to abuse their aids?? I dont think its a religion issue maam, its more a cultural and a racial one..Get your facts straight.

    July 15, 2011