Lebanon News

Civil society split over Nahhas’ view on migrant domestic labor

Labor Minister Charbel Nahhas, right, and head of the General Labor Confederation Ghassan Ghosn attend a meeting in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Civil society groups were divided Thursday in reaction to Labor Minister Charbel Nahhas’ voiced opposition to the draft law covering the rights of migrant domestic workers.

Speaking at a roundtable discussion on the empowerment of migrant domestic workers at La Sagesse university Monday, Nahhas told attendees that he rejected a separate labor law for migrant domestic workers. He reiterated his position on Twitter Wednesday.

“Any labor law that takes into account the nationality of the worker is tantamount to racial discrimination,” he wrote.

There are currently no labor laws covering migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, who Nahhas said numbered approximately 140,000 people, with another 20,000-30,000 illegally in the country. All domestic workers – whether foreign nationals or not – are exempt from the Lebanese labor law, which covers working practices, including working hours, basic pay and severance benefits.

In February of last year caretaker Labor Minister Butros Harb unveiled a draft law covering domestic workers written in conjunction with several civil society groups, as well as General Security and the Beirut Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute.

If instituted, it would compel employers to pay their employees on time every month, allow them at least one day off a week and provide decent living conditions.

Civil rights groups report of frequent abuse of migrant domestic workers and Human Rights Watch estimates that on average, one migrant domestic worker dies a week.

The issue over Nahhas’ comments lies in whether he would like to see a change in the general labor law to include all domestic workers or to maintain the status quo. Abdullah Razzouq, the director general of the ministry told The Daily Star Thursday that the ministry was still looking into the matter.

Opinions from civil society organizations were divided over whether the minister’s comments heralded a positive new direction, or represented a step back.

Hisham Bourji, president of the Association of Owners of Workers Recruitment Agencies, which was integral to the drafting of the bill, voiced confusion over Nahhas’ rejection of the draft law.

“I don’t know why he is rejecting it,” he told The Daily Star. “We need this law to protect not just workers, but also employers and agencies.”

Bourji acknowledged criticisms of the bill, but said “Whatever this law, I am sure it is 100 times better than no law at all.”

Antoine Hachem, a lawyer with the NGO Caritas, which also worked on the bill, said Nahhas’ words meant “We’re starting from zero.”

“There is a contradiction between what [Nahhas] said and all the work over the past year,” he said.

He said Caritas had urged Nahhas to ratify the bill. “There are currently 160,000 people in the country that have no law that protects them.”

Ethiopia, Nepal and Madagascar all have bans on sending nationals to Lebanon for employment because of the poor protections afforded to workers here.

Indonesia in 2010 signed a memorandum of understanding with the Lebanese government that it would send only skilled labor to the country, partly due to the poor legal protections for unskilled workers.

A source at the Indonesian Embassy said Wednesday that the labor minister’s initial stance on the draft law put further doubts over the country’s ability to protect such workers.

A source within the Philippines Embassy, which is soon to lift a ban on deploying domestic workers to the country after the signing of a memorandum of understanding which protects workers rights, said the embassy would need to clarify the minister’s position before it was able to comment on the issue.

The Insan Association, which organized Monday’s roundtable in conjunction with La Sagesse’s Faculty of Law, said that it cautiously welcomed the minister’s stance, provided it meant domestic work was brought under Lebanese labor laws.

“We agree that there is no need for a different law, because this might create discrimination,” said Charles Nasrallah, the president of the association.

Nahhas’ approach to the issue, Nasrallah said, was a positive departure from previous administrations.

“His overall approach regarding migrant domestic workers is very relevant to that of a human rights approach, and with NGOs working in the field,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 27, 2012, on page 3.

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