Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Daily Star: Minister of Labor to set up office to address migrant-worker complaints

Harb to set up office to address migrant-worker complaints
Minister says move spurred by criticism of ill-treatment

By Dalila Mahdawi - Daily Star staff - Friday, February 05, 2010

Original link:

BEIRUT: An office will be established in the coming months to handle complaints from or relating to migrant workers, Labor Minister Butros Harb said on Thursday. “I decided to create an office to receive complaints and coordinate with the embassies and consuls” after hearing criticism about the treatment of migrant domestic workers, Harb told The Daily Star.

There are around 200,000 migrant women working in Lebanon as live-in housekeepers, cooks and nannies. There are also an estimated 300,000 Syrians and an unknown number of Egyptians who work mostly as day laborers, doormen or gas-station attendants, with exact figures hard to come by. The majority of women migrant workers are from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines. Despite forming a sizable presence in Lebanon, migrant workers are not protected under the country’s labor law.

While many women are treated respectfully by their employers, the lack of protection mechanisms mean that many others are subject to considerable rights abuses, including having their pay withheld, not being allowed out of the home or a weekly day off, and sexual, physical or psychological abuse. Some women have also reported having their passports taken from them and being deprived of food or water.

A study conducted by Human Rights Watch in 2008 found that more than one migrant domestic worker was dying in Lebanon each week – mostly from suspected suicide or by falling off a balcony while trying to escape abusive employers. Up to 30 women, including at least three in January, are thought to have died since October. Syrian and Egyptian men have also complained of discrimination, being robbed, beaten or even killed.

The complaints office will be tasked with “resolving” conflicts between migrant workers, their employers and recruitment agencies, Harb said. “It will help prevent mistreatment that workers are having in some cases and on the other side, [discourage] workers from leaving their employers. I hope that in creating this office we will be able to resolve these problems easily.”

The idea of creating a complaints office is not new, said Simel Esim, senior technical specialist in gender equality and women workers’ issues at the International Labor Organization’s regional office for Arab states. “There was previously a complaints desk in the ministry that was not very active and was put on hold for a while … it was not really a place where workers went with complaints.”

She said she welcomed the re-launch of the office, saying it was “in line with the vision for a Labor Ministry that is taking the lead in monitoring the conditions of work for migrant workers.” She nevertheless said that if the desk is to properly receive complaints from migrant domestic workers, then it would “need to have a hotline with trained personnel who know the laws and regulations and speak the languages of the workers.” According to Harb, the hotline will initially only be available in Arabic, French and English.

When asked if Lebanon might follow Jordan’s example and include migrant domestic workers in the labor law, Harb said the issue needed further study.

“They are already regulated by Lebanese law and international conventions, but if there are any other laws [needed], I will look into it,” he said.

Lebanon has signed the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but not taken any steps towards signing the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which would obligate it to take protection measures for the migrant community.

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