Initiative seeks improved rights for domestic workers
‘24/7 Campaign’ to counter stereotypes surrounding migrant employees
By Dalila Mahdawi, Daily Star staff, Thursday, April 22, 2010
BEIRUT: They can be seen throughout Lebanon carrying heavy shopping bags, running errands for their employers and walking the dog. But just as frequently, migrant domestic workers aren’t seen by the public at all.
An estimated 200,000 women migrant domestic workers, mostly coming from countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ethiopia or the Philippines, work in Lebanon as live-in or freelance housekeepers, nurses and nannies. While many are treated with respect, others find themselves trapped in abusive circumstances. Many complain of having their passports confiscated, salaries withheld, or of psychological, sexual or verbal abuse. One basic right often flouted by employers is that of having a weekly day off outside the home.
Launched in the run up to Labor Day on May 1, a new campaign is calling on Lebanese employers of migrant domestic workers to provide safe working environments, starting with their legal obligation to grant a weekly day off outside the home.
The “24/7 Campaign,” organized by a handful of activists and non-governmental organizations, also hopes to counter the stereotypes surrounding migrant workers by showcasing their rich cultural heritage. Coordinators are planning several activities from April 24 to May 1, with consecutive activities taking place in the 24 hours leading up to Labor Day.
The activities, ranging from an African music night, food festival to travelling theater performances and capoeira, are aimed at “raising awareness and starting a dialogue of the issues of racism, the issue of migrant domestic workers, as well as their labor rights,” said Simba Russeau, one of the “24/7 Campaign” organizers.
“Normally the stereotype is that they are servants. We want to present them as more respectable individuals, that they come from very vibrant cultures, and to show them as business people,” Russeau said.
Bloggers and Twitter users will also lend the campaign support by posting facts and kick-starting debates about migrants in Lebanon.
One well-known blogger and graphic illustrator, Maya Zankoul, has already produced a video for the 24/7 Campaign website relating her experience of seeing a domestic worker getting out of the trunk of her employer’s car.
Campaigners are focusing their efforts on the issue of a proper day off each week because it is represents a fundamental human right, said Hayeon Lee, another organizer. Allowing workers to enjoy their day off outside of their employers’ homes would allow them to break their sense of isolation, meet friends and forge a sense of community, she said. “It’s the first step to them and their employees knowing their rights and obligations,” Lee added.
Although the Labor Ministry introduced a standard contract last year stipulating the right of migrant workers to enjoy a full day off outside of the house once a week, “we haven’t seen that change anything in practice and we are not seeing that contract being enforced,” said director of the Beirut office for Human Rights Watch (HRW), Nadim Houry.
As they are not granted protection in Lebanon’s labor laws, migrant domestic workers often find themselves unable to redress abuse.
“It is such a basic right and it really goes to the heart of the issue,” Houry said. Migrant domestic workers “are not servants that are permanently on call. They are employees that should have defined working hours, and that includes having a day off.”
HRW has played a pivotal role in increasing awareness about the plight of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Research it conducted last summer found widespread discrimination by beach resorts against migrant workers. Out of 27 private facilities contacted by the organization, 17 admitted to practicing some form of discrimination against such women.
Last year HRW published alarming statistics saying that more than one migrant domestic worker died in Lebanon each week – mostly from suspected suicide or by falling off a balcony while trying to escape abusive employers.
For more on the campaign, visit http://twenty-four-7.org