Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Campaign urges equal rights for domestic workers

The Daily Star. 05 May 2010

SIN AL-FIL: Employers must respect the rights of migrant domestic workers, Labor Minister Boutros Harb said Tuesday.
Speaking at the launch of a campaign to raise awareness about the plight of migrant workers, Harb said his ministry was “committed” to human rights for all, “irrespective of their gender, color or race.” The campaign, being carried out by Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, will see a nationwide media campaign advocating equal rights between Lebanese and migrant workers.
Some 200,000 female migrant domestic workers live in Lebanon, mainly from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Considered more like servants, they are not protected under Lebanon’s labor laws, which would guarantee them such rights as a weekly day off, fixed working hours, annual leave and overtime pay. As with elsewhere in the world, they are also effectively bound to their employer through a controversial sponsorship system.
In February, the Labor Ministry announced it was establishing an office to handle complaints from or relating to migrant workers. The hotline, which has not yet come into effect, will initially only be available in English, French and Arabic, however. Harb said that while the hotline would help reduce rights violations, abusive employers were “not the rule but the exception,” and noted that some migrant workers also committed violations against their employers.
Stories of migrant workers trapped in exploitative situations abound. Testimonies collected by rights groups show that workers have had their salaries withheld and their passports confiscated. Women have also reported being forcibly confined to the home, being made to work 7 days a week without rest, being deprived of food and of being subject to sexual, physical or psychological abuse.
Such horrific tales were a source of “pain to all and … could leave a very damaging impact on the image of our country and our people,” said Father Simon Faddoul, president of Caritas Lebanon. “We say it clearly today – all employees, foreign or domestic, ought to have the same rights as they do the same duties.”
Patrick Laurent, head of the delegation of the European Union (EU) to Lebanon, said the precarious situation of migrant workers in Lebanon remained “a matter of great concern.” The EU, which has supported Caritas since 2002, is funding the awareness campaign.
“We have all heard once or even seen with our eyes, that such regrettable practices similar to slavery persist in Lebanon. These practices must be combated, punished and prevented,” he said, adding that Lebanon’s legislative protection of migrant workers was “inadequate.”
Laurent urged Lebanon to cooperate and communicate with embassies of countries that sent workers and to ratify the UN Convention for the Protection of all Migrant Workers and members of their Families, which entered into force in 2003. Signing the convention would oblige Beirut to take protection measures for the migrant community.
Last year, the Labor Ministry introduced a new standardized contract which gives employees the right to decent work conditions and clearly defined working hours. While constituting a step forward, the contract “is not ideal,” said Kamal Sioufi, president of the committee at Caritas Lebanon.
He urged the document be amended to “include concrete monitoring of its application.”
Sioufi said that because of campaigning by civil society actors, there was now much greater respect toward migrant workers, with more migrants being referred to Caritas by concerned Lebanese.
He also pointed to successful lawsuits filed by migrant workers by abusive employers. Cases such as that of Filipino worker Jonalin Malibago in December 2009 have led to a legal precedent that will hopefully “ensure sustainable protection for migrant workers,” Sioufi said.
On Friday, activists from the “24/7 Campaign” organized 24 hours of consecutive activities around the issue of migrant domestic workers, timed to coincide with Labor Day on May 1. The activities, which included an African dance party and food stalls from the countries of migrant workers, culminated Saturday with a solidarity march calling for migrants to be granted their legal right of at least one day off per week.
“Justice, equality and respect are hard to apply,” Sioufi said. “However, we insist on introducing them on a large scale in our society, so that the spirit of charity promoted by Caritas can reign.”
© Copyright The Daily Star 2010.

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