Skip to main content

As told by Nadim Houry, director of Human Rights Watch's Beirut office

It was 2008, and along Hamra Street, one of Beirut's main thoroughfares, women's rights demonstrators had placed a series of identical cutouts shaped like women's bodies. Painted red, each sign represented a migrant domestic worker who had died - and Human Rights Watch had discovered that they were dying in Lebanon at the shocking rate of one each week.

Many of these workers, who usually migrate from Asia and Africa to cook, clean, and care for children, had jumped out the windows of 4th or 5th story apartments, trying to escape their slave-like conditions.

When I saw the cutouts, I knew our advocacy campaign on this issue had taken off. The cutouts were placed there by a Lebanese women's rights group that had taken up the cause, strengthening our support base for this issue. Passers-by stopped to read the cutouts, each of which listed a migrant worker's age, where she came from, if she had children, and how she died. Some shoppers expressed support.

When we began investigating abuses of domestic workers throughout Asia and the Middle East six years ago, almost no one was paying attention to the issue. Now there is widespread recognition, and hundreds of members of the International Labour Organization (ILO) -- including governments, employers' groups, and trade unions - met from June 2 to June 18 to draft a convention that will set global labor standards on domestic work.

Human Rights Watch was closely involved with the discussion.

Millions of women and girls from Asia and East Africa migrate to the Middle East for employment as domestic workers. Many of these women work up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for little pay or even no pay at all. They often face physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, and are forbidden to leave their employers' homes. National labor laws often exclude domestic workers, leaving them with little legal protection.

Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the women's rights division, has researched the issue in numerous countries, including Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Two years ago, the International Labor Organization decided to consider establishing global labor standards on domestic work -- something we've been pushing for years. Together, our women's rights and children's rights divisions launched a global advocacy campaign, sending more than a hundred letters to government labor ministers and meeting with dozens of government officials in person to emphasize the critical need for strong international standards. We provided input to both the ILO and to its members, and we created a brochure that several officials said they read cover to cover. We produced an educational video and held public educational events in Geneva and The Hague.

Three weeks ago, Nisha, together with the advocacy director of our children's rights division, Jo Becker, flew to Geneva for the ILO conference. One of our goals: Agreement on a binding convention that would legally require countries that ratified it to strengthen and enforce laws protecting domestic workers.

At the conference, the interest in the domestic workers discussion was tremendous. There were well over 500 delegates, including officials from more than one hundred governments, employers, trade unons, and domestic worker groups from around the world.

By far the most exciting part of the first day was when South Africa took the floor to make a statement on behalf of the entire African group, announcing that more than 50 African governments officially support a binding convention. Some of the biggest applause of the day was for the United States, when it gave a strong, compelling statement of its support.

By the end of the conference, delegates had negotiated the main elements of the convention, including guarantees that domestic workers would receive protections equal to those of other workers, including a minimum wage, weekly days of rest, annual leave, and social security. We were particularly pleased that these included protections for children and the mandatory oversight of agencies that recruit women for overseas jobs as domestic workers - both points we prioritized in our advocacy. Over the next year, our work will continue, as we encourage governments to adopt and ratify the convention next June.

Lebanon's government has already expressed official support for a binding convention.

This is good news, as historically domestic workers in Lebanon have experienced serious abuse. But thanks to our research and advocacy, the issue went from being nearly invisible to one being debated not only by Lebanese citizens, but also by the country's leaders.

In Lebanon, our advocacy on behalf of migrant domestic workers began with our 2007 report, Exported and Exposed, which resulted in significant media coverage. The report inspired the Beirut-based advertising firm, Grey Worldwide, to give us free help to create an ad campaign publicizing the issue.  That, combined with Lebanon's active civil society and the fact that Human Rights Watch has an office in Beirut, made Lebanon the ideal setting for our campaign.

Grey Worldwide helped us design posters, which we hung up around Beirut as well as in smaller cities. We negotiated with magazines and newspapers to place ads for free. We held a news conference to open the campaign, and Nisha wrote an op-ed article for As Safir, one of Lebanon's most-read newspapers.

We created 40,000 fliers and distributed them at supermarkets, where we reached women who employed domestic workers - the workers' main abusers -- while they shopped. The fliers asked readers to judge statements about the treatment of domestic workers true or false. For example, one read: "You should keep their passport, because otherwise they'll run away." We then explained how this common practice was harmful. In smaller cities, we mailed these fliers directly to people's homes.

The campaign resulted in more local and regional media coverage, as well as a number of calls to our Beirut office. One Lebanese woman, who lived in the United States but was visiting her sister in Lebanon, called and thanked us for sending the flier, which allowed her to broach the topic with her sister.

Four days after we published our findings that Lebanon's domestic workers were dying at the rate of one each week, the country's best-known Shia cleric, Sayid Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, urging employers to stop abusing their workers, saying such actions were religiously forbidden.

Another advocacy goal, beyond challenging the attitudes of the general public, was to involve local non governmental organizations in our fight. Ultimately, many women's rights groups and human rights groups broadened their outlook to include domestic workers. Because of their continued efforts, the issue has not lost traction and we have begun to see results.

In January 2009, Lebanon's Labor Ministry introduced a standard contract to protect migrant domestic workers. And this May, the labor minister announced at a conference that he would create a telephone hotline for abused domestic workers and hire inspectors to address workers' claims - both actions recommended by Human Rights Watch and other local and international groups.

Our years of research and advocacy on migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, and in other countries across the Middle East and Asia, created the foundation for the groundbreaking work we're doing with the ILO today.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country