By Alexandra Taylor, Special to The Daily Star, Saturday, December 18, 2010
BEIRUT: As the United Nations commemorates International Migrants Day Saturday the situation of the estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon remains problematic.
International focus on the issue intensified when a 2008 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report said domestic workers were dying at a rate of more than one a week in Lebanon. As recently as September 2010, KAFA (Enough), a women’s rights advocacy organization, documented nine deaths of domestic workers in a one-month period.
A lack of mechanisms to report incidents of abuse contributed to the dire situation for many foreign workers.
The Labor Ministry established a hotline to address this issue in June, but its impact has yet to be assessed. According to a September HRW report, as of July, not a single worker had contacted the ministry’s hotline.
However a source from the ministry said the hotline was now receiving calls regularly, and that Labor Minister Butros Harb had made revamping legislation on the situation of foreign workers a “highest priority.”
The source said the ministry would unveil a long-awaited draft law to address foreign workers’ conditions and was about to complete a translation, into 14 languages, of the Unified Work Contract, which now covers their status.
Meanwhile, KAFA has been active in offering its own confidential hotline service for abuse victims and has seen an increase in calls from migrant domestic workers due to its recent outreach efforts.
According to the hotline’s senior social worker, Rima Abi Nader, prior to KAFA’s outreach program, “People didn’t know what was here. You need to build a certain level of trust.”
KAFA’s new program to reach out to migrant workers began in June with the publication of a newsletter, whose first issue tackled the language gap.
“Nothing was translated for the domestic workers,” said Maya Ammar, a representative of KAFA’s Exploitation and Trafficking in Women Unit.
KAFA’s newsletter provides an unofficial translation of the Unified Work Contract, which workers must sign upon their arrival here. It outlines the terms of their legal residence and employment, since these are not included under the Labor Law.
The newsletter, which has been published in five languages, including Amharic, Tagalog, and Nepalese, also contains a directory of organizations which provide services to domestic workers, such as embassies, shelters, religious organizations and various NGOs.
Before KAFA began publishing the newsletter, calls from migrant workers were rare. Now the hotline receives three to four calls a week, specifically from domestic workers.
“After the first issue of the newsletter we received a lot more calls. We are even getting calls from people that are still in the house. What I think is happening is maybe a friend, a neighbor or a relative will get the newsletter and then speak with their relative or speak across balconies,” Abimourched explained.
KAFA has taken a bottom-up approach to communicate with migrant workers in Greater Beirut.
“We try to work through the communities themselves. The community leaders who work with us are the ones who usually distribute the newsletters. But there are also certain parts of Beirut that have a large number of migrant workers, like Dora, Hamra and Nabaa, where we distribute the newsletter,” explained Abimourched.
Abimourched stressed the importance of informal networks for reaching isolated workers.
“Some [migrant communities] are a bit more formal than others. Some are tied to their origin countries or their embassies. It varies from each community, partially on how long they’ve been coming to Lebanon. Some of the groups, like Bangladeshis, have not been coming to Lebanon for very long. But there’s definitely an organization of some sort, even if it’s social,” added Abimourched.
When a worker calls KAFA’s hotline, social workers offer psychological counseling, health and legal advice. According to Abimourched, salary and economic complaints are the most common, followed by sexual abuse.
“There is a high level of sexual abuse, but many who confront this situation are not able to access the system.”
Nader explained the protocol when the social worker encounters a caller complaining of abuse.
“The first step is getting her to come to KAFA to look for traces of abuse. Then we send her to the forensic doctor to get a report. Then we see if the woman has a case. Then we find her a shelter and … contact the lawyer who explains options to the woman.”
“Women don’t always come to us in the 24-48 hours where the proof or traces are still there,” added Ammar, on the challenges of building a legal case, which requires a forensic doctor’s report to prove any physical abuse.
For the activists at KAFA, public awareness is essential for connecting migrant domestic workers to available services. “Awareness campaigns targeting employers specifically, targeting practices that are considered normal but are [rights] violations,” Abimourched said. “Targeting domestic workers themselves … they might not know what their rights are or who to call, even though it’s a limited number of them who they can call.”
Heightened attention to the issue has helped the situation of domestic workers in Lebanon. “There are definitely more people speaking about the topic and the situation. And a lot more international pressure too,” said Abimourched, hoping that KAFA’s work will continue to shine light on the lives of migrant workers.
Labor Ministry hotline: (01) 540 114 KAFA hotline: (03) 018 019