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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.
By Mégane Ghorbani
There are at least 300,000 domestic workers in Lebanon, most of whom are migrant women from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines. They face countless human rights abuses and have no protections. In January 2015 over 300 migrant domestic workers from diverse nationalities came together to form a union that would fight against such abuses. The new union, supported by the National Federation of Trade Unions of Workers and Employees of Lebanon (FENASOL), is the first of its kind in the region. But, six months following their formal request to the Lebanese Ministry of Labour, the domestic workers’ union is still not legally recognized. Despite challenges, a number of different actors are seeking to strengthen this movement to establish protections and rights for all domestic workers.
Discriminatory legal and social environment
Article 7 of Lebanon’s 1946 Code of Labour exempts domestic workers, among others, from the legal provisions and protections under the right to work. Interpretation of the code restricts domestic workers from unionizing and Article 92 states generally that foreign workers are not eligible or qualified to vote.
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.
As Sawsan Abdulrahim explains, “the Kafala system means that domestic workers are outside the protection of the national labour law. Given that the overwhelming majority of domestic workers live in the house of the employer (even though Kafala does not stipulate this as a condition), there is a higher level of risk of exclusion. If abuse takes place, it is usually kept in the private sphere, this makes it difficult for domestic workers to remove themselves from abusive working conditions. This is more severe if/when the worker is prohibited from socializing with other workers or when she is not allowed to leave the employer’s house on her own.”
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.
In society, the oppression of migrant domestic workers is based on gender, race and class. Abdulrahim explains that domestic work, considered devalued women’s work in Lebanese society, has become more racialized over the years, hence the low number of Lebanese domestic workers. “In this case, women who have the means, hire other women to carry out this devalued work. The women are from another culture and are racialized based on their country of origin, skin color, language, etc. Domestic workers also lack protections because they are migrants in a setting where protections are offered to nationals only. As such, according to an article by Rita Bassil in ORIENT XXI magazine, “the violence that women employers submit their employees to is equal in force to that exercised by men onto their wives in Lebanon.” In addition, women workers are faced with racial stereotypes in society. For example, they are considered “dirty” and prohibited from accessing pools and private beaches for fear that “they dirty the water.”
Will to unite despite challenges
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.”
Faced with these difficulties, part of civil society nevertheless continues to mobilize for the human rights of domestic workers. “Despite the inhospitable policy environment in Lebanon, there is strong civil society with criticism towards the government. There are organizations like Kafa, Insan and Migrant Worker’s Rights that are advocating to improve the conditions of migrant workers and rely on international law,” concludes Sawsan Abdulrahim.
Since 2013, the hashtag #StopKafala, which went viral following a campaign launched by Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF) in 2014, is regularly used on social media to denounce the system of dependence and the abuse of domestic worker rights, whether Lebanon or the Gulf monarchies that include the practice. The domestic workers’ union meanwhile continues to mobilize, as evidenced by its participation in Labour Day demonstrations held on May 3rd in Beirut.
 A small number of these workers are Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian.
 That is to say, as relative to race.