Lebanese employers, placement agencies, and the Lebanese authorities should improve the treatment of domestic workers by ensuring fair contracts, timely payment of wages, and a weekly day’s leave, Human Rights Watch said today, on the eve of Labor Day. Human Rights Watch is launching a campaign to highlight the often invisible abuses that many women who are domestic workers suffer in Lebanon.
An estimated 200,000 domestic workers, primarily from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Ethiopia, play an essential role in a large number of Lebanese households, yet remain unprotected by labor laws and are subject to exploitation and frequent abuse by employers and agencies.
“This Labor Day reminds us of the important contributions these women make to this country,” said Nadim Houry, researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They not only pick up the slack in many households in Lebanon, but also help support their own families left behind. While some employers treat domestic workers with respect, many fail to provide minimum standards of decent working conditions, such as adequate food, living accommodations, and regular payment.”
The most common complaints made by domestic workers to embassies and nongovernmental organizations include non-payment or delayed payment of their wages, forced confinement to the workplace, no time off, and verbal, as well as physical, abuse. According to a 2006 survey conducted by Dr. Ray Jureidini of 600 migrant domestic workers, 56 percent said they work more than 12 hours a day and 34 percent have no regular time off. In some cases, workers have died while attempting to escape these conditions, some by jumping from balconies.
“We often hear employers say they cannot give a domestic worker a day off because she will come back pregnant or will want to get paid more after talking to other workers,” said Houry. “These employers may think they are protecting themselves or their workers, but what they are doing constitutes serious violations of basic human rights. The better approach is to build mutual trust.”
Testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch show that some Lebanese recruitment agencies illegally withhold the first few months of domestic workers’ salaries to recoup recruitment costs. The workers also complain that they are often physically and verbally abused by the agencies if they have disputes with their employers.
The Lebanese authorities have failed to curb abuses committed by employers and agencies. Lebanese labor laws specifically exclude domestic workers from rights guaranteed to other workers, such as a weekly day of rest, limits on work hours, paid holidays, and workers’ compensation. Immigration sponsorship laws restrict domestic workers’ ability to change employers, even in cases of abuse. An official steering committee created in early 2006 and led by the Ministry of Labor to improve the legal situation of migrant workers in Lebanon has yet to deliver any concrete reforms. This includes a long-discussed standard contract to outline minimum standards for domestic workers’ employment.
Human Rights Watch called upon the Ministry of Labor and other relevant authorities to amend the labor law to extend equal protection for domestic workers and to sign and ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.
“In the absence of effective state regulations, migrants remain at the whims of their employers and employment agencies. The Lebanese government must take immediate action to change that,” said Houry. “But employers and agencies shouldn’t need to be compelled by law to treat migrant domestic workers with decency and respect.”
Human Rights Watch plans to raise awareness among Lebanese employers by distributing leaflets and posters that tackle commonly held “myths” about migrant domestic workers. During the month of May, Lebanese can pick up Human Rights Watch’s leaflets in supermarkets and malls all over Lebanon.
“Many Lebanese themselves have been forced by wars and hardships to emigrate looking for a better life,” said Houry. “We hope that they will see the parallels with the experience of these migrants that came from far away to care for Lebanese families. That’s why we decided to call the campaign, ‘Put yourself in her shoes.’”