BEIRUT: Migrant domestic workers may become part of new trade union, the first of its kind in the Arab world, that plans to help break down the controversial “kafala” system. The head of the National Federation of Labor Unions Carlos Abdullah told The Daily Star that the group submitted a proposal to the Labor Ministry to create a new syndicate for laborers that includes migrant domestic workers.
Abdullah added that the federation planned to address many of the issues created by the country’s sponsorship system – known as the “kafala” system – which is seen as the root cause of migrant domestic workers’ lack of rights in Lebanon.
“We’re in a struggle phase now; we need to work to get Agreement 198 to be ratified and cancel the ‘kafala’ system,” Abdullah said in reference to the International Labor Organization agreement concerning decent work for domestic workers – which Lebanon has not ratified.
“This is the start of the journey and we don’t know how much time it will take to set up the union,” he said.
A source at the Labor Ministry, who declined to be identified as they were not authorized to speak with the media, told The Daily Star that the ministry does not yet have a position on the formation of the union.
“We’re having some difficulties because migrant domestic workers are not covered under the [country’s labor] law,” the source said. “There are some questions over the legality [of them being in a union].”
The source expressed doubt over the union’s potential to help migrant workers due to the fact that it may be illegal for them to vote or be part of the leadership of a union, even if they are included.
Abdullah said that laws concerning migrant workers’ rights in unions needed to be modified, adding that this would be one of the new union’s objectives.
“It’s true this law exists, but the law has to be amended. We can’t only pray for it, we need to work on it and this law needs to be amended.”
According to the ILO, Lebanon is home to over 250,000 female migrant domestic workers, the majority of whom come from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Bangladesh.
The kafala system dictates that migrant workers in Lebanon must be sponsored by an employer. But since these laborers are not protected under the law, the kafala system gives sponsors leeway to impose harsh working conditions with no fear of reprimand.
In some cases, sponsors have withheld pay, locked workers in their homes and confiscated their employees’ passports to prevent them from leaving, 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 abusive employers’ residences.
In 2008, Human Rights Watch recorded one migrant domestic worker death per week from unnatural causes, including suicide.
Members of the migrant community fear that the kafala system would prevent the union from having any impact. “The union is great but domestic workers are currently tied by the sponsorship system. How will we even go to the union?” Lydia Gedraseli, a migrant community leader, told The Daily Star.
She estimated that of the 250,000 migrant workers in Lebanon, only 5,000 to 10,000 have the freedom to leave their employer’s home, while the remainder would be unable to participate in any union activities.
Belo, a load carrier from Sierra Leone, echoed Gedraseli’s sentiment. “We can’t join a union as long as we are under sponsorship ... it will never work,” he lamented.
Belo, who has lived in Lebanon under the kafala system for 20 years, was skeptical that the union could put an end to the practice.
Gedraseli voiced hope that laborers could one day set up their own union that would include all migrant workers in Lebanon so that all 250,000 people could stand together against the kafala system.