April 28, 2010

Labor and Civil Society Organizing

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.
—Excerpt from a newspaper article about civil society organizing on migrant domestic workers’ rights in Lebanon, April 22, 2010[35]

Domestic workers face formidable challenges to organizing, including restrictions on freedom of movement, fear of angering employers and risking deportation, and a lack of free time outside of working hours, and also the problems of working in countries that tightly control and restrict nearly all types of civil society organizing. Civil society groups, faith-based organizations, and trade unions have grown more active in protecting domestic workers’ rights, especially through raising public awareness and providing victim services. In host countries, such organizations are growing in size, diversity, and sophistication. Many informal networks have formed themselves into nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), raised funding, and established services such as shelters for workers in crisis, helpdesks at airports and shopping malls, and training courses to help domestic workers use their time abroad to gain marketable skills.  In some cases, these organizations have been able to institute working relationships with relevant government bodies such as agencies that handle labor disputes or deportation proceedings.

In Malaysia, Singapore, and Lebanon, faith-based organizations have played an early and particularly critical role in identifying abuses against migrants, providing emergency services, and organizing social and education outlets such as picnics or training programs. In these countries, activists, academics, and students have experimented with creative strategies to challenge mistreatment of domestic workers, for example through essay competitions among children about domestic workers, exhibits with photos taken by migrants about their lives, candlelight vigils, and sports and cultural events.

These organizations have also developed SMS hotlines which help overcome domestic workers’ inability to seek help if locked in the workplace, hotlines staffed by volunteers in languages spoken by migrants, relationships with pro bono lawyers who can aid in criminal cases as well as accompanying them in negotiations with employers for unpaid salaries or payment of a return ticket home, and provision of emergency shelter. These organizations struggle with inadequate resources, especially to handle the high volume of complaints, to have enough interpreters, and to deal with issues like trauma counseling.

While most trade unions in the countries surveyed here do not have a history of including domestic workers in their membership, in recent years a few have begun to integrate advocacy for migrant domestic workers’ rights into their broader campaigns. Most notably, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress coordinates closely with migrants’ NGOs in Malaysia and has engaged actively with the media and the government to raise concerns about poor labor protections and exploitative working conditions for domestic workers. However, trade unions in Lebanon and Jordan have yet to coordinate closely with domestic workers’ groups, and Saudi Arabia bans trade unions. In Kuwait, as in other labor-receiving countries, many of the members of the Kuwait Trade Union Federation are employers of domestic workers themselves, resulting in conflicts of interest that may partially explain their lack of work on this issue.

Governments in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have histories of discouraging public debate, harassing activists, and making it difficult for civil society to register or obtain funding. In some countries, domestic workers’ employment visas prohibit them from forming or joining workers’ associations.

Positive models from other countries underline the importance and influence of domestic workers’ associations and unions. Hong Kong’s vibrant domestic work movement, comprised of migrants’ NGOs, domestic workers’ trade unions, and allied with the broader labor movement have been successful in fighting proposals such as a cut to the minimum wage, improving public awareness about labor abuses faced by domestic workers, and strengthening accountability for such abuses when they occur.

[35]Dalila Mahdawi, “Initiative seeks improved rights for domestic workers,” The Daily Star, April 22, 2010, http://dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=1&article_id=114059#ixzz0m6Dm2IMP (accessed April 25, 2010).