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Lebanon: Domestic Workers Need the Protection of a Union

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by IDWFED published Jun 16, 2015 12:00 AM
Women migrant domestic workers – who make up the majority of domestic workers – face additional discrimination in the legal system. The Kafala (guardianship) system, enforced in Lebanon and the Gulf monarchies, ties the domestic foreign worker to a specific employer; the worker becomes illegal should she quit her employer, placing the worker in a particularly vulnerable situation.

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Lebanon: Domestic Workers Need the Protection of a Union | AWID

Excerpt:

To commemorate International Domestic Workers’ Day this June 16th, AWID spoke to Sawsan Abdulrahim, professor of health science at the American University of Beirut, to learn about the issues and challenges in unionizing domestic workers in Lebanon.
Women migrant domestic workers – who make up the majority of domestic workers – face additional discrimination in the legal system. The Kafala (guardianship) system, enforced in Lebanon and the Gulf monarchies, ties the domestic foreign worker to a specific employer; the worker becomes illegal should she quit her employer, placing the worker in a particularly vulnerable situation. The system allows employers to restrict a worker’s freedom of movement, by confiscating passports and home confinement, which leads to an appropriation of the worker by the employer. In addition, a recently endorsed circular by the Ministry of justice has been submitted the notaries, to include a new clause in the employer’s letter of engagement, along with the contract. The clause stipulates that the employer must prevent any love relationship or marriage of the domestic worker in Lebanon. This underscores again how the employer can – and has the obligation to – appropriate the worker’s existence in every aspect of her life.

Internationally, although Lebanon is party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognizes “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work,” the country has not yet ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 189 on decent work for domestic workers, which guarantees, among others, the right to freedom of association and specific protections for domestic workers in terms of the right to work.

Migrant domestic workers are vulnerable to multiple abuses in the absence of protections, sometimes even resulting in their death. In 2008, Human Rights Watch reported at least one death every week of migrant domestic workers, and where investigations did take place, often failed to find the employer responsible. The violations that these workers face are varied, from forced confinement and sexual assault to imposed workloads, psychological harassment and absence of time off and compensation.
In certain cases, domestic worker recruitment agencies traffic migrant workers, particularly from countries where emigration to Lebanon is prohibited. Abdulrahim gives the example of

“a network of recruitment agents that facilitate the movement of women from Ethiopia through another country into Lebanon. The employer often pays a higher recruitment fee in this case and the worker encounters more hardship. Another practice that is prevalent in Lebanon is that agents request that the employer pay them the salary for the first three months and not to the worker. The employers consent in most cases and are told that the worker was informed about this before she left her country of origin.”

An ILO report on Human Trafficking in the Middle-East reveals different processes of human trafficking for forced labour of women domestic workers, including misleading the domestic worker around working and living conditions at the moment of recruitment, as well as the type of work she will be doing. In all cases, the woman migrant worker finds herself in a situation upon arrival that she cannot leave.
The formation of a domestic worker’s union at the end of January, uniting Lebanese and foreigners, to offer a soundboard for workers, to claim their rights to protection, and to work with authorities in making necessary reforms; sparked a real feeling of hope for these workers, having connected the fight for women’s rights with that of domestic workers, across nationalities.

At the same time, various challenges have made building this movement difficult. Reactions to the announcement were critical, from a strategic point of view, by certain people, referring to the legal provisions that inhibit foreigners from joining unions. Abdulrahim points out that “they instead argued that NGOs should work on organizing women at the grassroots level before coming out with a big plan for a union.”
At the governmental level, six months following the request made to the Ministry of Labour to form a union, the application has not yet been considered and the union remains regarded as illegal. This marginalization has a particularly demoralizing effect on activism for the protection of domestic workers rights, says Abdulrahim.         

The hope for the creation of a union is equally rivalled by the challenges tied to movement organizing, as workers working in the private sector can easily be prevented by their employers from joining in efforts to organize. Abdulrahim adds,

“The other impediment to this work is the weakness of the feminist movement in Lebanon in general. The rights of domestic workers should fit under the broad umbrella of women’s rights, both citizens and non-citizens. Lebanon has a relatively good history of union organizing in general, the challenge however is the view of domestic workers as foreigners who do not deserve the same rights as citizens…

There is also a cultural view that migrant workers have accepted to come to Lebanon to work for a couple of years to make money and to dedicate themselves only to this cause; that socializing and organizing should not be part of their activities during this time. This is of course a misconception because the wages of migrant workers are extremely low, most if not all cannot actually save the amount of money they need to save in two or three years to be able to go back to their country and open a business or build a house. Many migrant women have been living in Lebanon for more than ten years and they continue to work in order to survive.”

 

 

Source: Mégane Ghorbani/AWID

Story Type: News

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