Saturday, June 8, 2013

Recruitment agencies announce code of conduct

The Daily Star, by Samya Kullab, June 08, 2013 - BEIRUT: The Association of Owners of Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon has adopted a self-regulating code of conduct in a bid to protect the rights of migrant domestic workers, but the question of implementation, especially among recruitment agencies operating outside of the order, remains up in the air. “We are trying to put an end to the negative stereotype that haunts our industry,” explained Hisham Bourji, the association’s president, about his group’s decision to draft the code.

The announcement of the move was made Thursday during a conference organized by the International Labor Organization, with the cooperation of the Labor Ministry.

Bourji maintains that the association was already in the habit of following an implicit protocol for proper recruitment practices, but no one was paying
attention, he claimed.

“And now, we have to pay the price with a bad reputation.”

The principle reason to endorse the code publicly, he said, was to improve the order’s tainted image and assuage the concerns of the worker’s countries of origin, “so people know that we are trying,” to protect their rights.

Under to the code, all recruitment agencies are obligated to protect their workers from all forms of discrimination, physical and sexual abuse and other forms of exploitation.

Agencies are duty-bound to clarify worker and employment rights, and expected functions at the very beginning of the contract relationship.

Those agencies that violate the code of conduct, by facilitating work placements leading to forced labor and exploitation for instance, would be blacklisted. Repeat offenders would have their company name circulated to the embassies of the countries of origin, local authorities and non-governmental organizations regularly.

Recruiters are also responsible to report worker rights violations to the authorities, and must cover the travel expenses for workers with serious illnesses during the first three-month probation period, after which the employer bears these expenses.

“The code of conduct is not enough by itself,” said Nidal Jurdi from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the agency that commented on the code to ensure it adhered to international human rights standards.

“Most of our suggestions were taken, some were not,” he said, adding that, ultimately, the state was the main “duty-bearer” concerning migrant worker rights.

“The next step is to put in place effective implementation and monitoring mechanisms,” said Zeina Mezher, who is the National Project Coordinator of the ILO project Promoting Rights of Domestic Workers, which worked with the recruitment agencies to draft the protocol.

Mezher clarified that because there were diverse understandings of what the code of conduct entails between the members of the association, the International Labor Organization considered it important to coordinate among them.

“This doesn’t replace the importance of having strong legislation,” Mezher emphasized.

Establishing a committee responsible to monitor the application of the code, which would also include a complaints procedure, was considered by all parties to be a key precondition to activating it.

“But membership for the committee was not defined,” Mezher explained.

Ideally, the committee would include a representative from the Labor Ministry, General Security, the association and two civil society organizations. A minor spat took place between Bourji and an official from General Security over the security body’s membership in the committee, as the official maintained that General Security had not been consulted over its joining the committee.

However, not all agencies are happy about the code of conduct, since they believe that only rogue, unlicensed agencies have been guilty of abuses.

“This is an injustice for recruitment agencies that have their papers in order,” said an agency owner who did not wish to be identified.

“What about the hundreds of agencies that are operating without legal papers?” he said.

As for bringing the rest of the sector under the purview of the code of conduct – Bourji estimated that half the 500 or so agencies operating in the country are unlicensed – only a Parliament-endorsed labor law can address this point.

Bourji has maintained that the approval of a law drafted during Butros Harb’s tenure as labor minister would effectively control rogue agencies.

“They are committing 90 percent of the abuses,” said Bourji.

“No one wants to focus on this point. With the code of conduct, the ground has been prepared for this law to be implemented. Without this law, we have nothing.”

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