BEIRUT: After years of campaigning for migrant rights, representatives from Arab countries are looking to educate their own governments about the importance of applying international standards for workers.
The Arab Regional Network for Migrant Rights, consisting of six countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates – Sunday and Monday held a conference hosted by the Lebanese NGO Insan Association, which focuses on the rights of marginalized individuals in Lebanon, to educate their respective governments about the importance of implementing international labor law and raise awareness about their group.
They specifically referred to the International Labor Organization’s Convention 189 on domestic workers, which came into force in September, but which has not been implemented in the Arab world. Basic rights outlined in the convention include decent daily and weekly rest hours, a minimum wage, the ability to choose where they spend their leave and freedom from abuse.
The two-day event, attended by human rights activists, diplomats and government officials, included discussions with migrant workers about the problems they face and an analysis of international labor law, concluding with a public forum with the director of General Security, which oversees Lebanon’s foreign workers.
Abdullah Razzouq, general director at the Labor Ministry, voiced his concerns about protecting migrant workers, saying that they should always have a contract in a language they understand and that they shouldn’t be referred to as servants, but rather as workers.
But he fell short of what activists were hoping when he added that his own domestic worker was “like a member of the family,” a possibly well-meaning but potentially harmful term that NGOs say undermines their status as professionals and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation in their working hours and without freedom of movement. Still, the activists saw this discussion as a step toward achieving some of their goals.
“We still have a lot to do I guess,” said Lala Arabian, executive manager at Insan Association. “She’s not part of the family. She’s a worker and she should have a working relationship with her boss.”
Linda Al-Kalash, executive director of the Amman-based NGO Tamkeen, said she had met several domestic workers Sunday who shared some of their grievances. She heard from foreign workers who spoke of not being allowed by shops to choose their own food – even on their days off – the lack of burial space for foreigners in Lebanon and even the discrimination faced by dark-skinned donors trying to donate blood.
Human Rights Watch estimates that families in Lebanon employ approximately 200,000 migrant domestic workers, primarily from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Nepal. In addition, there are up to 1 million Syrian workers – many of whom are unregistered.
“We need to do a lot after what we heard today,” Arabian said.