Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers demand equal rights Favorite 

Practitioner: 

Date: 

May 5 2012

Location: 

Lebanon

There are over 200,000 migrant domestic workers living in Lebanon
today — a large number when you considered that Lebanon’s population is
only a little over 4 million. Most migrant workers live with their
Lebanese employers, cleaning their houses, washing their clothes,
cooking their food and looking after their children. Yet these workers
are not included under Lebanon’s labor laws — they are not entitled to
basic rights such as minimum wages, maximum working hours, and holiday
or sick pay. Many never get a day off. Those that do are often not even
allowed to leave their employers’ houses.
The suicide last month of Ethiopian domestic worker and mother of two
Alem Dechasa, who was publicly beaten in front of the Ethiopian embassy
she had been trying to escape to for help, caused a wave of outrage
around the globe after a film of the beating was circulated. But hers is
by no means an isolated case.

According to a report
by Human Rights Watch migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are dying at a
rate of more than one person a week. The report revealed that many of
these deaths are suicides; most of the rest are accidental deaths caused
by workers falling from high buildings while attempting to flee abusive
employers.
Last Sunday over 1,000 people gathered in Beirut in a march organized
by the human rights watchdog Anti-Racism Movement, along with the
migrant workers’ communities and several non-governmental organizations,
among them the Danish Refugee Council, the Insan Association, the Nisawiya women’s rights group, and Pastoral Care of Afro-Asian Migrants.
The event was intended to raise awareness of migrant workers’ unfair
treatment and demand improvements to their situation, in particular that
migrant domestic workers be included under Lebanese labor laws and the
abolition of the kafala, or sponsorship system which ties
workers to a single employer. The event, also intended as a celebration
of Labor Day, was held two days before the national holiday since most
migrant workers get only Sundays off — if they get time off at all.
The march was followed by a cultural celebration in which migrant
communities from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cameroon, India, Madagascar, Sudan,
Ethiopia, Kenya, the Congo and the Philippines performed dances and
served traditional food. Domestic workers from Nigeria, Sudan and
several other African and Asian countries were also in attendance, along
with Lebanese and international activists and supporters.
The sponsorship system in Lebanon means that migrant workers’
immigrant status in the country is dependent on them working for a
single employer who is legally responsible for them. As a result the
majority of domestic workers live as well as work in their employers’
homes “for their own protection,” leaving them subject to human rights
abuses. These commonly include confiscation of their passports and other
papers, restriction of movement — the majority of employers do not
allow workers to leave the house or even make phone calls — late payment
or even non-payment of wages, no restriction of working hours, as well
as physical, sexual and verbal abuse.
The system makes it extremely difficult for migrant workers to seek
legal aid. They are not allowed to leave the country or change employers
without consent from their sponsors, who often demand enormous sums of
money to return their documents. If they leave their employer, even
under abusive conditions, they automatically lose their immigration
status in the country because the kafala system legally binds them to their sponsor.
Workers from a large number of communities came together to promote
their common cause in Sunday’s march, carrying signs which read “Stop
human trafficking of migrant workers in Lebanon,” “When will we start
criminalizing racism?” and “Workers not slaves.”
“The migrant workers make an important contribution to society and to
the individual households,” said Pendaline Pinero, a Filipina community
leader. “Their work should be recognized by the government. They should
be part of the labor law.”
The atmosphere in Sunday was festive, as crowds gathered to watch
traditional dances, eat, drink and celebrate the attendance at the
peaceful protest.
In spite of the difficulties they face, however, the domestic workers
attending Sunday’s event were the lucky ones — those who have time off
and are allowed to spend it outside their employers’ houses.
A 2011 report on human trafficking
in Lebanon by non-governmental organization and women’s rights group
KAFA, quoted excerpts of telephone interviews with domestic workers
unable to leave the house, many of whom are still working in Lebanon,
but unable to attend events such as Sunday’s march.
“I cannot leave my employer’s house and I cannot even call my
family,” one Filipina worker told KAFA, while an Ethiopian worker said:
“I was beaten by my first sponsor and sexually harassed by the next one.
I worked long hours and did not get proper food.”
Another Ethiopian worker reported: “I have been working for one year
for my employer, but he has paid me only $500 so far. When I asked for
my salary once my sponsor hit me. I want to change my employer. But I
don’t know how. I don’t know how to get help.”
While Sunday’s event was a step in the right direction there is still
a long way to go. NGOs such as the Insan Association and KAFA hold
peaceful demonstrations in Beirut on a regular basis, aiming to raise
awareness and increase pressure on the Lebanese government to make some
much needed changes to the current situation.
Rola Abi Mourched, program coordinator at KAFA, said Thursday that
the government has yet to respond to Sunday’s protest. “We’ve been
having meetings with different stakeholders and ministers,” she said.
“The next step is to continue putting pressure on the government and
raising awareness to encourage the public to support these changes… We
plan to continue putting pressure on the Lebanese government by
conducting individual meetings with decision makers to advocate for
alternatives to the sponsorship system.”
In February KAFA held a public discussion with the former Minister of
Labor, Dr. Charbel Nahhas, who announced that he had submitted a number
of suggested amendments to the labor law to the government before his
resignation earlier that month. These include changes which would
require domestic workers’ salaries be paid into a bank account subject
to scrutiny to ensure wages are paid in full, that a translator be
present when workers sign a contract at the Ministry of Labor, and allow
workers to terminate their contracts through a notification system.
Prior to his resignation Charbel had announced that he would look at
abolishing the sponsorship system, stating that migrant household and
agricultural workers should be included under the labor law. “Any law
that takes into account the nationality of workers,” the former minister
wrote on Twitter, “is tantamount to racial discrimination.”
Charbel’s replacement as labor minister, Salim Jreissati, has yet to
announce any plans to put an end to discrimination against migrant
workers.
A leaflet published by the Insan Association and its partner AIDA
states: “Much more needs to be done. Migrant domestic workers need to be
able to socially integrate into Lebanese society and enjoy their rights
as full citizens in this country.”

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