Monday, December 7, 2009

Lebanese civil society gets active in migrant domestic workers issues

A recent series of tragic suicides has prompted rare and vital coverage of the plight of domestic workers in Lebanon. The Zico House in Hamra, regular host to the only legally recognized gay rights organization in the Middle East, held a panel discussion on domestic workers and also facilitated a vigil to commemorate the victims of suicide, domestic and sexual abuse. The event was sponsored by Taste Culture.

Among the panelists were several domestic workers from a variety of nations including the Philippines, Sudan, and Ethiopia. These women described the duplicitous agencies that worked in their home countries to recruit women to travel overseas and become domestic workers. Despite the diversity of backgrounds, all the women described a similar process wherein the pay and ease of their labor abroad were greatly exaggerated. Once domestic workers arrive in Lebanon, they are usually deprived of their passports, and as a result have no recourse when their employers withhold pay or time off. Compounding this problem is the fact that many of the home nations of the domestic workers do not have full-fledged embassies in Lebanon that could provide passport services or facilitate legal representation. Withholding passports is illegal in Lebanon, but it is widely known that this law is not enforced, and the police in Lebanon are notorious for siding with Lebanese families over their foreign employees.

Besides the laws that aren’t even enforced, domestic workers have incredibly little legal protection. Migrant workers are not guaranteed the rights to minimum wage and regular leave that are provided to all Lebanese citizens under article six of the Lebanese Labor Law. Depressingly, little pay for endless work is perhaps the best-case scenario for a migrant worker in Lebanon, as physical and sexual abuse are also prevalent.

A community organizer, who also spoke as a part of the panel, explained that he had turned his home into a safe house for domestic workers who were attempting to escape abuse and had nowhere to go. There was also a panelist representing Human Rights Watch, who mentioned that the labor secretary of Lebanon has not responded to over 50 letters sent by Human Rights Watch.

It is vital that this rare moment of exposure to practices akin to modern-day slavery not be an aberration. Here are two more important pieces on migrant workers in the Middle East.

Written by Evan Barrett

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