HAZMIEH, Lebanon: Government officials, diplomats and rights advocates gathered Monday to find ways to bring the country’s legislative framework into line with international standards to better protect migrant workers, during a conference that brought together all of the major players involved in the issue in Lebanon.
Embassies, ministries, non-governmental organizations, General Security and laborers themselves met to create a list of policy recommendations to be submitted to the government shortly after the beginning of the New Year.
“Awareness has already been established. Now we’re working toward concrete steps to support domestic workers,” said Samantha Hutt, researcher and advocacy adviser at Insan Association, an NGO that focuses on the rights of marginalized individuals in Lebanon. “People are now sensitized. We need to take action.”
The two-day event, “Beyond the Kafala System,” a reference to employers’ sponsorship of domestic workers, took place at the Rotana Hotel in Hazmieh and was hosted by Insan and Christian Aid.
Human Rights Watch estimates that Lebanese families employ approximately 200,000 migrant domestic workers, primarily from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Nepal.
The largely unregulated sector sees regular complaints over the nonpayment of wages, lack of rest hours, forced confinement, confiscation of mobile phones and passports, and sometimes even physical abuse.
The problem is exacerbated by the Lebanese law, which excludes migrant domestic workers from protections given to employees in other sectors.
One of the issues is making sure the Lebanese legal framework is in line with Convention 189 on domestic workers, put into effect by the International Labor Organization in September. Basic rights enshrined in the convention include decent daily and weekly rest hours, minimum wage, the ability to choose where they spend their leave and freedom from abuse.
Attendees suggested that one way to tackle this would be translating the employment contract into the worker’s native language, as well as fully explaining to employees what job they will be performing before they leave their home country.
Castro Abdallah, head of the Federation of Workers and Employees Unions in Lebanon, said some women he had worked with had applied to a Lebanese agency for the job of a nurse, only to find themselves working as a household maid upon arrival.
“Employers often assume that workers have no idea what’s in the contract,” added William Gois, regional coordinator for the Philippines-based Migrant Forum in Asia.
Ensuring that domestic workers sign a contract they understand is one of the basic steps conference attendees hope will be implemented out of their list of recommendations.
Small victories in the past have seen workers able to arrive at Beirut airport on their own without being picked up by their Lebanese employer, as well as ensuring they keep possession of their passport during their stay in Lebanon. Employers often take workers’ travel documents to prevent them from leaving the house.