Government has ‘not even managed the incremental step of creating a fair employment contract’
By Dalila Mahdawi
Thursday, December 18, 2008
BEIRUT: Lebanon has not done enough in 2008 to address the plight of its population of female migrant workers and falls “far behind” the efforts of other Middle Eastern countries, rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday. “Lebanon lags far behind almost every country in the region when it comes to protecting migrant women’s rights,” said Nisha Varia, deputy director of HRW’s women’s division.
Her comments came on the eve of the eighth annual International Migrants Day on Thursday, designated by the United Nations in 2000 in recognition of the increasing numbers of migrants across the world.
According to estimates by the International Labor Organization, there are approximately 9 million migrants working in the Middle East. Lebanon hosts some 200,000 women domestic workers, mostly from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines, as well as an unconfirmed figure of Syrian and Egyptian male laborers who may number in the hundreds of thousands.
Women migrants in Lebanon work mainly as live-in “maids” and do not enjoy legal protection under the country’s labor laws.
Vulnerable to exploitation and rights abuses, many domestic helpers work long hours without a weekly day off. A 2006 survey of 600 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon by American University of Beirut professor Ray Jureidini found that 56 percent worked more than 12 hours a day and 34 percent were not allowed regular time off.
According to a 2005 survey conducted by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Caritas Lebanon, some 90 percent of employers retained the passports and other legal documents of their employees, seriously limiting their freedom of movement. Many workers are also forcibly confined to the residence where they work and denied regular, if any, payment of their salaries.
According to Caritas project manager Rania Hokayem, the NGO takes on an average of 40 new cases of distressed migrant womens each month.
Like those of many other countries in the Middle East with large migrant worker populations, the Lebanese government has promised to take measures to protect domestic workers, but has yet to show any substantial progress on the matter, HRW said. Lebanon is still not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.
An official steering committee was established by the government in 2006 to improve the lives of Lebanon’s migrant workers. The committee is charged, among other things, with creating standard employment contracts written in Arabic, English, French and the native language of the worker, and with formulating a new law for migrant workers. It is also supposed to have published a booklet detailing the rights and obligations of employers and employees, for distribution at airports, ministries and recruitment agencies. But while other Arab countries were “debating concrete legal reforms,” said Varia, “Lebanon has not even managed the incremental step of creating a fair employment contract.”
“It is encouraging that [Middle Eastern] governments are finally considering serious reforms, but these proposals mean nothing until the new protections are in place and being enforced,” she said. “Each day of delay leaves migrant domestic workers open to abuses such as unpaid wages, being locked in their workplaces, and to physical and sexual abuse.”
The number of women falling victim to such abuse in Lebanon is alarming. A HRW report issued in August found that “at least” 95 women migrant workers had died between January 1, 2007, and August 15, 2008, a figure equal to more than one woman per week. Of the 95 deaths, 40 were “classified by the embassies of the migrants as suicide,” said HRW, stressing that the list was not exhaustive.
“Most deaths resulting from a building fall are failed attempts to escape” abusive employers, a labor attache told the group.
Since releasing the report, HRW has continued to monitor migrant deaths and has found the figures have remained more or less the same. “Unfortunately we are still seeing approximately the same death rates,” HRW senior researcher Nadim Houry told The Daily Star.
While media coverage on the issue of domestic worker rights had increased in 2008 “both in terms of quantity and quality,” official attitudes had not changed, Houry said.
“The government still does not see the rights of migrant workers as a pressing issue, despite the high death tolls and the extent of human right violations,” he said. “We need to see concrete action.”
The failure to improve the plight of migrant workers has led to Ethiopia and the Philippines banning their citizens from working in Lebanon. The bans were “expressions of frustration,” Houry said, but seem to have had little impact.
Nevertheless, adopting standard employment contracts, prosecuting abusive employers and modifying the labor law were all changes that, with the commitment of the government, could “be achieved before the next parliamentary elections” in 2009, Houry said.