Lebanon News

U.N. sets example with law on domestic workers

BEIRUT: The United Nations in Lebanon has adopted a code of conduct for U.N. staff who employ domestic workers, in an effort to “influence” similar legislation at the national level.

“What we are hoping to achieve with the code of conduct for national and international staff is to set an example for Lebanon and other countries in the region which rely very heavily on help from domestic workers,” said Robert Watkins, U.N. resident coordinator for Lebanon, at a news conference Thursday to announce the guidelines.

Among the 21 guidelines are requirements that workers be over 18 years old, work no more than 10 hours a day (with breaks), receive a day off each week, and enjoy freedom of movement and an annual leave of at least 15 days.

The code of conduct was also distributed in United Nations offices throughout the region.

In Lebanon, “we rely on them [domestic workers] without a safety net,” Watkins added. The guidelines are a step toward providing “them a legislative framework to give them the rights they deserve and make clear the relationships between domestic workers and their Lebanese employers.”

There are currently no laws in the country to protect the rights of migrant domestic workers. Former Labor Minister Butros Harb unveiled a draft law to address the situation in February, but would require approval from the new government before it is debated in Parliament, where it is expected to face strong opposition.

The draft law includes some articles similar to the U.N. guidelines, including requiring a day off each week and allowing workers to spend that day outside the home, after first discussing it with their employers.

“The U.N. agencies should step up and present a model for what we believe is proper behavior for employers,” Watkins said. “While we cannot impose that legislation in the country, we would like to try to influence it.”

Watkins recognized that the U.N. code of conduct, which is limited to U.N. staff and relies on self-monitoring for enforcement, is “not a complete solution but a small symbolic step meant to inspire others,” including private companies and professional associations.

Philippine Ambassador Gilberto Asuque, who attended the conference, voiced support for the United Nations initiative, saying it would “to push the envelope for protection of migrant workers in Lebanon.”

Filipino nationals were banned by their government from working in Lebanon in 2007. The Labor Ministry has worked closely with its Filipino counterparts on a Memorandum of Understanding that would elaborate migrant worker protections, but the ban remains in place.

The ambassador noted that the code of conduct had provisions similar to those in the landmark Convention on Domestic Workers, which was adopted by the International Labor Organization last week.

Lebanon’s delegation to the ILO conference endorsed the convention, along with 80 percent of the world’s governments, workers and employers, but the ratification of the convention is expected to face hurdles in the Middle East, which is home to seven million migrant domestic workers.

Asuque said the ILO convention could be an opportunity for Prime Minister Najib Mikati to fulfill the announced policy of complying with international resolutions.

Meanwhile, as the draft law remains on the sidelines, local groups and the U.N. are taking the initiative and will “provide parameters for the Parliament moving forward, protecting rights and promoting the welfare of the domestic workers,” said the ambassador.

One such local measure, mentioned by Maurizio Bussi, deputy regional director of the ILO, has been adopted by the American University of Beirut, which has also set down guidelines for the fair treatment of domestic migrant workers on campus.

But the United Nations along with local initiatives aren’t a substitute for national legislation.

“We hope that the draft law will find its way to become a law,” said Asuque.

By providing legislation we are sending “the message that household service work is a decent profession.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 24, 2011, on page 3.

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