BEIRUT: The National Federation of Labor Unions slammed Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi Tuesday for rejecting its proposal to create a union for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.
“The Labor Ministry, despite all its speeches about the ‘importance of modern laws,’ comes out with a statement empty in content and backwards in proposal,” the federation said in a statement.
The unions expressed disappointment that Azzi’s statement Monday described the domestic workers’ right to form a union as “illegal.”
“This fundamentally contradicts the International Labor Convention... the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Universal Convention for Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, and even intentionally overlooks the Lebanese Constitution,” the federation’s statement said.
Azzi had voiced his rejection to the union’s formation Monday, saying the workers’ rights would instead be protected by a bill he is introducing to Cabinet.
“Advanced laws would solve the problems that the [migrant worker] sector is suffering from, not the formation of groups under the guise of a syndicate,” the ministry said in a statement.
“Did the author of the Labor Ministry’s statement forget when he... referred to the appropriate work organization and the standards of the ILO, that appropriate work is based on the right of association and collective bargaining?” the unions’ statement wondered.
“It would be useful that they review the international standards before writing such statements.”
The federation also reminded the ministry that workers' unions should participate in drafting any decision, bill or policy that concerns work conditions.
Currently, the employment of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is governed by a sponsorship, or “kafala” system, which has been widely criticized by human rights groups that liken it to slavery.
Under the system, migrant workers must be sponsored by a Lebanese employer in order for them to work in the country. But since such workers are not protected under the labor law, the kafala system gives sponsors leeway to impose harsh working conditions with little fear of reprisal.
Azzi’s bill, which he says respects the International Labor Organization’s Domestic Worker Convention, requires a written contract between the employer and the employee.
The bill also prevents employers who have previously mistreated migrant domestic workers from hiring a new worker.
Other articles stipulate providing insurance, annual vacation, suitable living conditions, fair compensation, and the right to employee privacy.
The bill has not yet been ratified by Parliament.
According to the ILO, Lebanon is home to more than 250,000 female migrant domestic workers, the majority of whom come from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Bangladesh to work as housemaids.
Rights groups have complained that employers often withhold pay, lock workers in their homes and confiscate their passports, among other abuses.
The harsh living conditions have pushed some migrant workers to commit suicide. Others have died or been seriously injured while trying to escape their employers’ homes.
In 2008, Human Rights Watch recorded one migrant domestic worker death per week from unnatural causes, including suicide.