Friday, November 12, 2010

The Daily Star: Forum tackles steps needed to boost rights of migrant domestic workers

Friday, November 12, 2010

By Simona Sikimic and Carol Rizk, Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Landmark steps to incorporate domestic workers in national labor unions got under way Thursday in meetings between United Nations representatives and regional trade-union leaders.

Some 200,000 migrant domestic workers are thought to be working in Lebanon, with millions more spread over the region, but few are afforded any tangible protection under the law. Without union representation, they are left open to a long list of abuses, including non-payment of salaries, confiscation of travel documents as well as verbal, physical and even sexual abuse.

“It is time to act to regulate the domestic-work sector through legal, administrative, and cultural measures,” said Labor Minister Boutros Harb.
“We are in the process of reviewing a national draft law prepared in collaboration with the International Labor Organization (ILO).”

Speaking at the ILO-organized two-day Beirut conference, Harb outlined pledges to include unions in the final decision-making process on the issue, to crack down on employment agencies, blamed for most of the abuses, and to boost education among employers and employees.

Despite holding a poor record on its treatment of migrant domestic workers, which has been widely publicized in several human-rights reports, Lebanon won tentative praise from ILO representatives for finally taking constructive moves to stem abuses. The country is increasing access to translations for migrants, engaging trade unions and debating relevant draft laws in Parliament, they said.

“[The General Labor Confederation (GLC)] considers all employment in Lebanon to be equal and doesn’t discriminate between a Lebanese worker and an other worker in terms of unions, morality and the law,” said GLC president Ghassan Ghosn. “Laws regulating foreigners are still far behind legal and humanitarian terms.

“We demand the enforced laws be implemented but [agree] that they naturally need to be amended,” he said.

Their pledges, however, stand in contrast to ILO complaints that regional labor activists have “tended to claim that addressing the concerns of specific groups of workers, carries the risk of falling into a ‘divide-and-rule’ situation, since it is the rights of all workers that should be promoted.”

Some at the conference complain bad treatment and poor pay are region-wide problems affecting many citizens, as well as migrants, and insist that already insufficient inspection mechanisms cannot be developed to inspect private homes, where most migrant workers reside.

“In parts of the Arab world we have massive issues with the treatment of Arab women in general, who are prevented from acquiring property by inheritance laws,” said Yemen General Federation of Working Trade Union representatives, Abdel Mohammad al-Gabri. “Maybe we should focus on women’s rights and human rights in general first?

“Places like Yemen, Syria and Qatar have barely any trade union representation, [many people] have barely any rights, how are we expected to try and fight for rights for people who are not even from our countries?”

The Middle East, alongside all other world regions, is expected to submit a list of final recommendations concerning the treatment of domestic workers to the UN by November 14. These will form the basis of a Decent Work for Domestic Workers convention that will come up for a vote at the ILO’s 100th general session, scheduled for July 2011. It is hoped that, if adopted, these standards and outlines – which will include clauses on the right to a weekly day of rest, the enforcement of written contracts and the establishment of minimum wages – could have further reaching consequences and help mitigate the entire regional labor situation.

“The inclusion of domestic workers under that national labor laws or adoption of legislation specific to them would be integral to our efforts for the promotion of decent work more generally,” said General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unionists envoy Suad Mubarak Mohammad.

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