Tag Archives: migrant workers

The writing is on the wall for Lebanon’s government

13 Apr

Lebanon may have escaped the tumult of the so-called Arab Spring, but the country’s ruling classes seem illiterate to its main message: that conceited rulers who do little to assist ordinary people in their daily quest for dignity will one day face their wrath.  

Compared to elsewhere in the region, things look calm in tiny Lebanon. But underneath the photo-shopped veneer promoted by the Ministry of Tourism lies a steadily boiling pot of despair and ruin.

Today marks the 37th anniversary of the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war. In 15 years of horrific violence, up to 300,000 people were killed and 17,000 are still considered missing. Lebanon never had a truth and justice commission and ignored its international obligations to investigate the whereabouts of the missing. Instead, it introduced a sweeping amnesty law in 1990, which allowed many militia leaders to return to Lebanese politics as ministers. Their sectarian grievances now mostly play out in Parliament, but followers of their personality cults occasionally still fight it out on the streets or on television. Because of the constant political bickering, issues of critical importance to the nation are being left to rot, quite literally.

An on-going scandal has exposed a number of factories selling meat products years past their sell-by dates to the country’s supermarkets and restaurants. Only a few arrests have been made, however, and commentators are pessimistic that government pledges for a full investigation will translate to meaningful action.

In January, a residential building in Beirut collapsed suddenly, killing 27 people. This was followed by several other collapses, including a school wall, which crushed three pupils to death. But despite the urgency for new building regulations, the government is doing little to prevent further similar catastrophes, choosing only to demolish one bridge experts have been warning might buckle for years.

The country’s list of woes goes on and on. Migrant workers not protected by Lebanon’s labour law are committing suicide at startling rates and Lebanese women continue to struggle against institutionalised discrimination and misogyny. Lebanon’s overcrowded prisons have been described as tinderboxes teetering ever closer to disaster, as have the country’s landfills. The worst one, in the Southern city of Sidon, regularly collapses, dumping tonnes of hospital and chemical waste into the Mediterranean Sea. Gas and food prices have steadily increased over the last few months, making it virtually impossible for Lebanese living on the minimum wage (around £280) to make ends meet. To add insult to injury, Lebanon endures mandatory daily electricity cuts, ranging from three hours in the capital to around 12 hours daily in rural areas.

If this Sisyphean list of problems isn’t enough to stir the Lebanese leadership to action, one might think the crisis in Syria, which is slowing seeping its way across the border, would. Earlier this week Lebanese cameraman Ali Shaaban was shot dead, allegedly by Syrian soldiers, while on assignment near the border. There is frequent sectarian fighting between pro- and anti-Assad supporters in North Lebanon and the number of Syrians (mostly women now since Syria has placed a ban on all men between 18-40 years leaving the country) seeking refuge in Lebanon from the violence is growing steadily.

And yet, with all this trouble mounting, what does the Lebanese government choose to focus on? It is currently prosecuting a graffiti artist by the name of Semaan Khawwam, for  “disturbing the peace” after he was caught spray-painting figures holding big guns.

Use of graffiti is widespread in the Lebanese capital. In the absence of a coherent protest movement, street art is increasingly being used to convey people’s grievances with the state, whether it be over the lack of a marital rape clause in the criminal code, widespread corruption, drink-driving, or high unemployment.

Khawwam’s soldier-like figure doesn’t clearly attack any person or institution, so it remains a mystery to many why his case is being pursued out of many thousand possibilities. More importantly, graffiti art is not actually illegal under Lebanese law. Yet he faces a fine and possibly three months in prison if convicted. His lawyer, Adel Houmani, made an important point when he questioned the legitimacy of the case: “If this artistic work is vandalism,” he told Al Akhbar newspaper, “then what do we say about the photos of leaders that are posted everywhere, in addition to all the random posters and ads?”

The case against Khawwam shows just how muddled the logic of Lebanon’s leadership is. This is a country where politicians struggle to identify the country’s most basic priorities, mainly because their priorities are to stay in power, leading luxurious lifestyles deeply out of touch with most of their constituents.

The writing, it would seem, is on the wall. It’s not only Lebanon’s meat, fish and poultry that is way past its expiry date- its leaders are too.

NOTE: The travel ban on Syrian men has now been rescinded.

Ethiopians protest consular neglect, Alem Dechessa’s death

4 Apr

A photograph of Alem Dechessa’s family has been published on Facebook.  I reported last month that Ethiopian national Alem had committed suicide in a Lebanese hospital following the broadcasting of amateur footage showing a Lebanese man, Ali Mahfouz, abusing the 33-year-old migrant worker.

The photo, taken by Michael Fassil, originally appeared on Facebook after Zewdi Reda, founder of the Have Hope Foundation, posted it to her account.

Last Sunday (usually the only day many Ethiopians and other migrant workers have off), a few dozen members of the Ethiopian community in Lebanon gathered outside their consulate in Beirut to protest its apathy towards their treatment in Lebanon.

According to an article in The Daily Star newspaper:

“The assembled expressed their frustration with consular officials’ perceived callousness, saying that when Ethiopians contact their consulate in Lebanon via telephone they are often ignored or hung up on.

“We are living here,” said a woman named Berti, adding that “the [consulate] should help us, but they only want money.”

One woman told the newspaper she didn’t believe Dechessa had killed herself: “Nobody helped her,” said another woman named Sarah, who wore a blue keffiyeh: “How did she die? She didn’t kill herself. She’s not crazy.”

Ali Mahfouz has been charged with contributing to and causing the suicide of Dechessa, but he is reportedly not currently in custody.

Lebanese consul urges Philippines to drop travel ban for migrant workers

8 Dec

By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Monday, December 08, 2008

BEIRUT: The Lebanese consul in Manila has said the Philippine and Lebanese governments should grant amnesty to 43,300 Filipinos who have defied a ban on working in Lebanon.

Manila introduced the ban in 2006 following the outbreak of the summer war between Israel and Lebanon, when it evacuated thousands of its citizens, and because of Lebanon’s poor working conditions for migrants workers.

Speaking on Friday to a Philippine newspaper, The Inquirer, Consul Joseph Assaad called the ban “counterproductive,” saying it had not prevented Filipinos from seeking work in Lebanon, mainly as domestic workers.

His comments came almost two weeks after the Phillipine Department of Foreign Affairs sought assistance from the Presidential Task Force against Illegal Recruitment.

According to Assaad, 16,140 Filipinos entered Lebanon in 2007, many circumventing the ban by traveling through third countries. From January to November 2008, 21,982 Filipinos entered Lebanon, he said.

“This is really unfortunate because they are in Lebanon as undocumented workers … [and are not registered] with the Philippine Embassy,” Assaad said. “I’m calling on our government and the Department of Foreign Affairs to lift this ban. It’s illogical and it’s counterproductive,” he said.

Manila should also revoke the ban to allow undocumented Filipinos to register with the Phillipine Labor Office in Beirut and obtain insurance, Assaad said, adding that Lebanon was experiencing an economic “boom” and was in need of nurses and construction workers.

Manila should also give amnesty to all workers, employers, recruitment agencies and immigration officers that had defied the ban, Assaad added.

There are an estimated 25,000 documented Filipinos working in Lebanon. Ethiopia and Sri Lanka also have substantial numbers of migrant workers in Lebanon, and have likewise imposed travel restrictions on their citizens because of poor working conditions.

Although there are some 200,000 migrant workers in Lebanon, none are protected by Lebanese labor laws, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.

NGO launches campaign against abuse of women

26 Nov

NGO launches campaign against abuse of women
By Dalila Mahdawi

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

 

BEIRUT: Abeer’s story will resonate with thousands of women in Lebanon and millions around the world. Literally trapped in an abusive marriage for 30 years, she was only able to divorce her husband in 2002 after a law giving women the right to file for divorce came into force in Jordan, where she lived.

Her daughter Nisreen, who lives in Beirut, told The Daily Star that although her mother worked as a school teacher, her husband forbade her from accessing her money. “When we moved, my father took all her savings and bought a house in a very remote area. He sold my mother’s car and every morning would lock her in the house and give the key to the shopkeeper who lived nearby,” Nisreen said.

“I think it goes without saying that my father always used to beat her, too” Nisreen added.

Abeer made repeated attempts to leave her husband, but with no money and three children, she had few options. Nisreen said that every time Abeer tried to leave, her father would threaten to take the children away. All requests Abeer made for a divorce were ignored.

Luckily for Abeer, she had a son from a previous marriage who was able to pay for the education of his half-siblings, something Abeer’s husband had refused to do. “When I finished university, my brother bought our mother a house,” said Nisreen. “Also around that time, the new divorce law came into force, so my mother left my father, went to live in her new home and within three months was granted a divorce.” If it hadn’t been for the introduction of legislation allowing women in Jordan to divorce their husbands with greater ease, Abeer would still be in a violent marriage.

After the divorce, said Nisreen, her father married a 16-year-old Bedouin girl. “When I went to visit my dad, I saw he was doing to her exactly what he used to do to my mom,” she said. “I felt that there was nothing I could do for her except be her friend and give her support.”

Marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Tuesday, both men and women across the world campaigned to bring an end to the horrific experiences suffered by the likes of Abeer. Violence against women is “the most pervasive yet least recognized human rights abuse in the world,” the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has said.

According to the World Health Organization, one-third of all women in the world have been forced into sex, beaten, or otherwise abused, usually by someone known to them, during their life. Most women are more likely to die or be disabled due to domestic violence than from disease, war or car accidents.

In Lebanon, KAFA: Enough Violence and Exploitation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to eradicating gender-based violence, child abuse and human trafficking, launched Tuesday the annual “16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence” campaign, along with a number of other NGOs.

During the campaign, which will run until International Human Rights Day on December 10, awareness stalls will be set up at Lebanese universities, shopping malls and supermarkets, and signatures will be collected for a petition calling on the Lebanese government to adopt a family-violence protection bill.

The KAFA-drafted law is needed, said program coordinator Ghida Anani, because “the Lebanese penal code’s view of violence does not take into consideration the intimacy and specificity of family relations.” Lebanese law does not consider marital rape a crime either. “The law we are asking for is preventative,” said Anani. “It would see the establishment of special police stations to deal with family violence, the establishment of a family court, and force the abuser to pay all expenses related to violence, such as medical care,” she added.

The draft law reflected a “huge need” by Lebanese women, said Anani, for legal protection, “considering all the obstacles they face” to escape domestic violence. “Many women suffer from economic dependence, the threat of having their children taken from them and difficulties in obtaining divorce,” she said, adding that most divorce cases in Lebanon were filed “because of abuse.”

Clause 61 of the Ministerial Statement issued in August noted that the government would “work toward implementing Lebanon’s commitment to international conventions and in particular to CEDAW [the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women]. It added that the government would “also seek to address all forms of violence against females.”

The clause was “the first time ever that mention has been made of violence against women with an explicit promise for legal reform,” said KAFA. But Lebanon has yet to ratify CEDAW.

In a statement to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said Tuesday: “We call on people and leaders around the world to join forces to make violence against women history. Let us reaffirm our faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women.”

But with the number of women seeking help from KAFA increasing, the fight to protect women from violence still has a long way to go.

 KAFA’s helpline can be reached on 03 018 019

 ‘A year of missed opportunities’ for migrant workers – human rights watch

BEIRUT: Many migrant and domestic workers continue to face abuse and exploitation in the Middle East and Asia because of a lack of laws protecting their rights, US-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday. In a press release issued to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on Tuesday, HRW said domestic workers have little access to the justice system in the countries where they work, and even when they do complain, “rarely receive redress.”

“Governments need to punish abusive employers through the justice system, and prevent violence by reforming labor and immigration policies that leave these workers at their employers’ mercy,” said the deputy director of HRW’s Women’s Rights division, Nisha Varia.

Hundreds of thousands of African and Asian women work in Lebanon and the Gulf as domestic workers, but most are excluded from the labor laws of those countries. “Employers control a worker’s immigration status and ability to change jobs, and sometimes whether the worker can return home,” said the press release. “Many employers exploit this power to confine domestic workers to the house, withhold pay, and commit other abuses.”

“2008 marked a year of missed opportunities,” said Varia. “While most governments have started to think about some level of reform, many of these discussions have stalled. Providing comprehensive support services to victims of violence, prosecuting abusers, and providing civil remedies are reforms that just can’t wait.”

HRW called for a number of measures to be taken to protect the rights of migrant domestic workers working in the Middle East and Asia, including the abolishment or reform of “immigration-sponsorship policies so that domestic workers’ visas are no longer tied to their employers,” the prosecution of perpetrators of psychological, physical and sexual violence, the creation of support services and legal aid for workers who face abuse, and training for law enforcement officials “on how to respond to domestic workers’ complaints appropriately.”

A HRW report issued in August found that migrants workers in Lebanon were dying at a rate of more than one per week, either as a result of suicide or while trying to escape abusive employers.

Domestic Workers Risking Death to Flee Employers

1 Sep

Domestic workers risking death to flee employers
Rights group: Isolation drove dozens of live-in maids to suicide, deadly escape attempts
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

 

Domestic workers risking death to flee employers
 

 

BEIRUT: Leading human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) spoke on Tuesday of “the urgent need” to improve the working and living conditions of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, saying that “at least” 95 women had died between January 1, 2007 and August 15, 2008.

“Domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per week,” said senior HRW researcher Nadim Houry of the epidemic in an official press release. According to HRW data compiled from the records of the Sri Lankan, Ethiopian and Filipino embassies, media reports, and a select number of available police reports, 40 of the 95 deaths were “classified by the embassies of the migrants as suicide.”

Twenty-four deaths were caused by workers “falling from high buildings, often while trying to escape their employers,” and two were murders. However, the figures were not exhaustive “as certain consulates and embassies of migrants did not share their information” with the group, said the press release. HWR also had evidence of eight domestic workers that had survived falls. A labor attache in an unidentified embassy told HRW “Most deaths resulting from a building fall are failed attempts to escape,” added the press release.

Speaking to The Daily Star, Houry said that since the list had been compiled, an additional death had occurred. Nepalese worker Kesradivi Yerepa Mart “hung herself in Dawhet Aramoun in her employer’s house” over the weekend, he said. “What is clear from the figures is that isolation is driving many of these [workers] to suicide,” Khoury added.

The HRW statement quoted a former ambassador as saying, “Don’t call this an embassy. We have become a funeral parlor. People die. Natural deaths, accidents, suicide. When they try to run away, accidents happen.”

Investigations into the deaths of migrant workers were often limited, added the press release. “Police do not always investigate whether the employer mistreated the employee, and when they do, they limit themselves to general questions and accept the employer’s testimony without cross-checking” their information with other concerned parties, such as neighbors or the employee’s family. “In cases where the domestic worker survives a fall, police often interview her without the presence of a translator and generally ignore the motives that led her to escape,” the HRW statement said.

“All those involved – from the Lebanese authorities, to the workers’ embassies, to the employment agencies, to the employers – need to ask themselves what is driving these women to kill themselves or risk their lives trying to escape from high buildings,” said Houry. “It’s unacceptable to have such a high unnatural death rate, and it’s also preventable,” he added.

There are thought to be some 200,000 domestic workers, mostly from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and the Philippines, working in Lebanon. A great number of these work as live-in maids and are often forced to work long hours without a weekly break or sufficient food. A 2006 survey conducted in Lebanon by Dr. Ray Jureidini of 600 migrant domestic workers 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 by the non-governmental organization Caritas Lebanon, 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 house and denied regular, if any, payment of their salaries.

On top of all that, Lebanese labor laws do not protect domestic workers, making them vulnerable to exploitation and human rights abuses.

“The Lebanese are often defensive when talking about the treatment of domestic workers,” Houri said in a telephone interview. “We should move beyond this defensiveness and really think about these high [death] figures and come up with a strategy to improve” the experiences of migrant workers in Lebanon.

“While police reports usually classify cases where domestic workers fall from balconies as suicide, this classification is highly suspect,” said the HWR press release, citing testimonials from survivors who said they were fleeing abuse.

Lebanon is a signatory to the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but has not yet signed the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

In early 2006, an official steering committee was established to ease the problems of domestic workers. Roland Tawk, a lawyer who often takes on pro-bono cases of incarcerated migrants and a member of the committee, said it had three main goals; 1) to create standardized employment contracts in Arabic, English, French and the native language of the worker; 2) to publish a booklet detailing the rights and obligations of employers and employees, to be distributed at airports, ministries and recruitment agencies, and 3) to formulate a new law for migrant workers.

But according to Houry, “to date” the committee “has failed to deliver any concrete reforms … it’s time for the Lebanese government to show real leadership and actually deliver” these promises, he said.

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