Organizing Themselves – Female Migrants in Lebanon Take Action

In their struggle for basic human rights in Lebanon, domestic migrant workers are one step closer, having set out the demands for a unified contract with human rights groups that the government promised to enact. While those involved are calling the agreement a move in the right direction, they assure it is not a solution to achieving basic rights for migrant workers in Lebanon.
Originally from Madagascar, Aimee has been a domestic worker in Lebanon for years.

BEIRUT, March 5, 2009 (MENASSAT) – After a two-year combined effort by human rights groups and migrant workers, the Lebanese Ministries of Labor and Social Justice promised to enact a unified contact for migrant domestic workers  - a community that numbers more than 200,000 in Lebanon, and are still legally considered servants, rather than employees.  

The new demands, agreed upon by a steering committee, will be included in a new contract, that, if enacted, will be a step forward for migrant rights in Lebanon.

Currently there are various two-year contracts between placement agencies and the workers, but with the unified contract a work term would extend to three years.

The contract also states that women should only work 10 hours per day and are entitled to 8 hours of continuous rest.

It would also include one day (24 hours) of rest per week, but does not state that workers are allowed to leave the home of their employers during their rest period - an issue still being negotiated. 

The contract, which was presented to the ministries by migrant workers who have taken a lead role in their communities along with groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) , would also tackle the problem of salary disparities.

HRW has reported that it is not uncommon for salaries to be withheld from domestic workers, and therefore the committee decided the unified contract state that the salary must be paid each month along with proof by both parties of the transaction.

It also marks the first time that the employee and employer would read the same contract in their own language.

The employer, however, will still have the right to break the contract for whatever reason, which means the worker is then responsible for paying her ticket or repaying any debts owed.

Far from being a solution

Although this is a step closer to achieving basic rights for domestic workers in Lebanon, the women still feel there is a major issue that needs to be addressed in the contract - that they should not have their passports taken by their employers, but should be able to provide them with a photocopy.

Also, no one can force the agencies, the police or the employer to adhere to the conditions stated in any contract.

"This is an important step as the contract contains a number of provisions that provide the migrant workers with some rights. However, the contract is not the solution to all problems. First, it is as good as the people enforcing it. And in Lebanon, contract enforcement is always weak. So we need to keep pushing to make sure that the terms of the new contract are respected," senior researcher at HRW, Nadim Houry posted on the facebook group "Support Rights of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon."

"Secondly, experiences in other countries that already have a unified employment contract for domestic workers (such as Jordan) show that the contract is not sufficient in itself and that a law protecting these workers is needed," he said.

Workers are therefore still demanding a new decree that will increase the regulation of placement agencies, which at the moment, are not accountable to anyone.

They also want the ministry to amend the labor law to include migrant domestic workers under Article 6 to be considered employees, rather than servants, which is their current status - one that does not grant them any rights or protection whatsoever.
A rights and obligation booklet for migrant workers has been created but needs to be translated into all the languages of the workers.

Community spaces

The lack of protection for migrant workers - by their governments and host countries alike - has prompted domestic workers in Lebanon to create a number of informal networks and makeshift community spaces for women who are seeking refuge after fleeing their employer's home.

“Recruitment agencies from our home countries are tricking new domestic employees by telling them that they will have a great job, with a high paying salary and the ability to save money and provide for their families,” said Aimee, a domestic worker from Madagascar.

“But then they arrive to a big surprise and realize that it was all a lie.”

Originally from Madagascar, Aimee has been a domestic worker in Lebanon for eleven years.

Like all other migrant women, Aimee came to Lebanon and worked under a three-year contract; she said she was lucky to become a freelance domestic worker after her contract ended.

At that time, she had the choice of signing another contract through an agency but decided to find a Lebanese person that would agree to sponsor her work papers, allowing her to work as a freelancer.

However, she explains, when you do this it means dealing with Lebanese who may try and get a lot of money out of you - because you are not actually working for them just using their name for sponsorship.

Aimee was involved in social work in Madagascar so it was not unusual for her to respond when women from Madagascar, Africa, the Philippines and Sri Lanka started seeking her assistance.

“Sometimes I wonder how I managed to put myself in the position of the social worker but I was also very active in my country. I see my people in such distress and the consulate is not working on the behalf of the women,” stressed Aimee.

“I am a stranger in this country but I am not alone. I am not afraid of Lebanese people, only of God. So this is how I get the strength to stand up for these women. Also, I have the needed experience to act as an intermediary between the Lebanese employers and the women.”

Workers dying by the week

The nature of domestic work is looked down upon in Lebanese society. Many migrant workers are not aware of their rights and obligations before arriving to Lebanon.

The differences in culture and customs creates a lack of communication between the employer and the women. The language barrier between the two can lead to a conflict situation, where in most cases, the employer resorts to violence.

In August 2008, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report that compiled alarming statistics. Since January 2007, at least 95 migrant domestic workers have died in Lebanon, HRW stated.

Of these 95 deaths, the embassies of the migrant workers have classified 40 of these cases as suicide, 24 as falling from high buildings while trying to escape their employers. Only 14 domestic workers died as a result of diseases or health issues.

“Domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per week,” said Nadim Houry, senior researcher at HRW.

“All those involved – from the Lebanese authorities, to the workers’ embassies, to the employment agencies, to the employers – need to ask themselves what is driving these women to kill themselves or risk their lives trying to escape from high buildings.”

Upon completion of interviews with embassy officials and friends of domestic workers who committed suicide, the report found that forced confinement, excessive work demands, employer abuse, and financial pressures were key factors in pushing these women to kill themselves or risk their lives to escape.

“The employer has all the rights and it causes the women to become distressed, mad and depressed – which leads to suicide,” said Aimee.

Isolation and lack of social protection are also obstacles in dealing with the abuse and suicide of workers.

“There are not enough shelters for these women, which is why they often look to members of their community for help,” explained Joan Lara, a migrant worker from the Philippines.

“Only the Philippines and Sri Lanka have embassies in Lebanon but they lack resources to deal with the amount of cases. If the women go to the police they will be sent back to their employer and if they seek assistance from the agency they find more abuse.”

Most reported cases of abuse in Middle East

The Caritas Migrant Center is one of few organizations in Lebanon that offers a 24-hour counseling hotline and shelter for victims of abuse.

Remittances from domestic workers in countries like Lebanon play a big role in the  workers’ national economies. Foreign remittances accounted for about 13 percent of the Philippines’ total gross domestic product (GDP) last year, according to the Philippine’s Overseas Employment Administration, POEA.

Sri Lanka received $3.4 billion in remittances in 2007 from migrant workers abroad, while according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), between 2000 and 2005, remittances to sub-Saharan Africa increased by more than 55 percent, to nearly $7 billion.

But the absence of protection for foreign nationals has prompted key labor-source countries to restrict travel to Lebanon.

Last year, Ethiopia officially banned its citizens from coming to work in Lebanon, while since November 2007, migrant Filipino workers are only legally permitted to travel to Lebanon if paid a minimum of $400 per month.

Currently, the set rate is $200 for Philippines, $100 for Africans and $150 per month for Sri Lankan workers.

Sri Lanka is now considering banning women migrant domestic workers from going to many countries in the Middle East starting in 2009, including Lebanon, according to Human Rights Watch.

Recent statistics by the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) show that 60% of the total overseas Filipino migrants are based in the Middle East. It is also reportedly, where the most reported cases of abuse and inhumane treatment have occurred.

“This is why women like myself, who have good employers, are taking the initiative to speak out and provide support for those women that are not as fortunate,” said Lara. 

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