BEIRUT: Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi Friday defended the treatment of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, suggesting reports of abuse were exaggerated.
“If a foreign worker is not content in Lebanon, he would not come to work here,” Azzi said. “Because no human being would leave his country and travel to another if he were not in need for a job that pays him much better than what he would have earned at home.”
The minister’s comments came during a press conference to launch the book, “The Kafala System: When employers also accepted to share their perspective,” hosted by the human rights organization Insan.
Under the Kafala system, which contradicts Lebanese labor law yet is still widely practiced, foreign domestic workers are brought into the country under the sponsorship of a Lebanese employer. This gives the employer complete control over the visa status and movement of the worker they have sponsored, a situation that is open to abuse.
According to a report published by the Open Society Foundations (OSF) in February, foreign domestic workers in Lebanon – of which there are around 200,000 live-in and a greater number beyond this – earn monthly salaries that begin at $100, a contradiction of the official Lebanese minimum wage of $500 per month. Their job description and working hours are dependent on the whim of their employers, and often subject to abuse.
The OSF report also said that three quarters of surveyed domestic workers had had their passports confiscated, an illegal practice that is carried out to prevent workers from leaving without their employers’ permission.
The report also highlighted that foreign domestic workers suffer from low salaries, lack of employment rights, physical abuse and isolation, all of which can lead to self-harming behavior.
In a 2008 report, Human Rights Watch found that there had been an average of one death per week from unnatural causes among domestic workers in Lebanon, including suicide and suspicious falls from tall buildings.
Commenting on the mistreatment of foreign domestic workers the labor minister said: “We have a labor law, a labor ministry, General Security and police. Whoever feels that he is badly treated should go and refer to these [authorities].”
However, Human Rights Watch released another report in 2010 stating that out of 114 judicial cases, “not a single employer faced charges for locking workers inside homes, confiscating their passports or denying them food.”
As well as suffering abuses from their employers, activists say that foreign domestic workers in Lebanon also suffer torture and mistreatment at the hands of official government forces.
According to the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, General Security has a detention center in an underground parking lot near the Adleih roundabout in Beirut that currently houses 800 foreign workers - all of whom are being detained indefinitely in an overcrowded space without access to sunlight.
Countries such as the Philippines and Ethiopia have banned their citizens from working in Lebanon due to the lack of protection of foreign domestic workers. However, this did not stop the flow of those who had come due to desperation over poor conditions in their home countries.
Human Rights Watch’s 2010 report also said that despite their being a compulsory standardized employment contract as of 2009, it’s availability in Arabic alone prevents many foreign domestic workers from benefiting from it. It also provides foreign domestic workers “far weaker protections than those available to other workers under the main labor law.”
Despite these limitations, Azzi, who is also the depty head of the Kataeb party, stated that: “Foreign workers must submit to these working conditions as long as their Lebanese employer is paying the salary which the worker had accepted.”
Speaking at the book launch, the labor minister said that problems faced by foreign domestic workers were overstated.
“We don’t mind the exaggeration of foreign workers’ problems, but we shall not be portrayed as not respecting them. We are the ones who contributed to putting the basis of Human Rights [Declaration] in the United Nations,” Azzi said. “We had the first labor law in the Arab world.”