Lebanon News

New round of regulating domestic worker agencies begins

Labor Minister Salim Jreissati, center, chairs Monday's meeting (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: A draft decree to regulate private recruitment agencies and bring them in line with international standards was discussed by key stakeholders at the Labor Ministry Monday, with representatives from recruitment agencies complaining that they were not consulted.

“We must work to regulate the employment of female migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, both legally and administratively,” Labor Minister Salim Jreissati said at a roundtable discussion with other government representatives, non-governmental organizations and unions.

Representatives from the association of recruitment agencies, however, said they were not consulted about the draft decree and felt some of the articles were contradictory, defying their practical experience in the sector.

“You are only prosecuting those who are working under the law,” said association president Hisham Bourgi, adding that 90 percent of violations against migrant workers are perpetrated by direct employers and not recruitment agencies.

Moreover, he said, there are several agencies working without a license that pose an actual threat to migrant domestic workers because there is no law to regulate them.

“The only tangible results [for workers] have been carried out by us,” he added, referring to his association’s voluntary Code of Conduct, launched last year.

Since 2009, private recruitment agencies have been regulated under a decision issued by the labor minister, while the decree now under discussion builds on the 2011 draft law for migrant domestic workers initiated by former Labor Minister Butros Harb, which the current minister said he plans to revisit “very soon.”

A key proposal in the draft decree calls for the revival of the National Employment Office, which would gradually take charge of managing relations between employers and domestic workers. The recruitment agencies, consequently, would play an increasingly subsidiary role with workers, and stick to job matching and bringing workers to Lebanon.

“[The treatment of some domestic workers] borders on slavery; this means the state must have an apparatus to follow up on the issue and the best approach is the National Employment Office,” said Nizar Saghieh, the legal consultant who helped develop the draft decree with support from the European Union and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

The proposed regulations are a product of collaborations between the International Labor Organization, government representatives and employers to bring the country in line with international labor standards such as Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers and Convention 181 on Private Employment Agencies.

However, the decree’s preamble acknowledged that NEO isn’t yet capable of handling its proposed responsibilities due to financial, administrative and human resource constraints, and that private agencies would likely lobby against the changes.

This will require a transitional phase, whereby the NEO and private agencies work in tandem until powers are effectively transferred.

The decree includes new legal protections for migrant workers, such as requiring a witness upon the signature of contracts before workers leave for Lebanon, and guarding worker confidentiality, including medical records.

There are approximately 200,000 domestic migrant workers in the country and no specific law to oversee their labor rights, leaving them open to exploitation with no real option for legal recourse.

"Once regulated, private recruitment agencies have a lot to offer to the functioning of the labor market," said ILO Deputy Regional Director Frank Hagemann.

To alleviate the pervasive problem of non-payment of wages, the decree calls for agencies to ensure that the employer open a bank account with a guarantee of at least six months’ salary.

In addition, prohibitions would also be imposed on recruitment agencies, barring them from opening more than one agency, collecting money from the workers, or allowing workers from taking jobs on the side.

The decree would establish a complaints and monitoring system, suspending or revoking licenses if regulations are not followed. The decree would also allow the labor minister to appoint an official to inspect agencies for human trafficking crimes.

These protections attempt to place migrant workers on equal legal footing with their employers, a status that has been absent in previous draft labor laws, according to Saghieh.

Special incentives to encourage compliance with the new regulations are also provided, as agencies that maintain good legal standing will be allowed to increase their annual quota for migrant workers.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 26, 2013, on page 4.

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