السبت، 21 فبراير، 2009

The Daily Star: One Small Step For Domestic Workers

Activists: new employment contracts not enough to stem widespread abuse
BEIRUT: "I heard a female voice screaming for about 15 seconds and ran outside to see what was happening when I saw something large fly off the sixth floor balcony of the building across from me," said Alena Mack, eyewitness to what she believes may not have been an accidental death. What she saw fly off the balcony turned out to be the body of a domestic worker.
This incident happened a week ago in cosmopolitan Hamra, not even a four-minute walk from the medical gate at the American University of Beirut.
"What disturbs me is that no one seemed to react much ... people on the ground seemed disinterested, so at first I thought it had just been a piece of furniture ... a big TV or something," Mack said.
The most chilling aspect of this account is not so much what led up to the fall, but the fact that the Lebanese are becoming more and more desensitized to incidents like this one, due to the prevalence of domestic workers being found dead on the pavement. These deaths are classified primarily as suicide cases, though Human Rights Watch (HRW) research points to the deaths as being more often the result of a fall when trying to escape their employers. HRW also puts the death toll for migrant domestic workers at about one death per week.
"These women have no rights, no protection whatsoever" said Jane Rubio, researcher and activist for migrant domestic workers rights, in reference to their exclusion from Article 6 of the Lebanese labor law.
"While some women get 'lucky' enough to be placed in a home with a welcoming family who treats them with respect, many less fortunate migrants find themselves in homes where they are locked in the house and never released, often while being verbally, physically or sexually abused," she added. In cases like these, the women become desperate victims in a system that does not grant them basic human rights.
The situation has become so appalling that Ethiopia and the Philippines have banned their citizens from coming to work in Lebanon. "They started to ask themselves why Ethiopian Airlines was flying back two bodies per week ... and why many of the women who actually returned were coming back crazy," Rubio said.
Fortunately, not everyone is indifferent to what they see. "Our campaign, along with the voices of other groups and an increase in overall media interest, has served to elevate the interest of policymakers that this is now a serious problem," said Nadim Houry, senior researcher for HRW.
In an outcry against the injustice faced by migrant domestic workers, HRW in Lebanon launched a campaign last year to spread awareness and fight for greater recognition of these women's rights in early 2009. The cry was not in vain. On March 1 two adjustments will be made to Lebanese legislation that will begin to address the issue: a unified contract and a decree that will increase the regulation of placement agencies.
A contract that is understandable and enforceable by both parties is the most basic foundation of a legal working relationship. After three years of discussion, the unified contract due to come out on March 1 will mark the first date that the employee and employer will read the same contract in their own language and agree to the same notarized terms.
Under common practice prior to this new development, workers often signed a contract in their own language in their home country and then signed another one in Arabic upon arriving in Lebanon. Although this contract would rarely be identical and would usually consist of only a few lines specifying the duration of service and the salary, it would be the only one notarized as enforceable in Lebanon.
"It has some important provisions, but the key is enforcement," said Houry, who is also concerned about ambiguity and double standards in the contract which favor the employer. He also questions the burden placed on the employee to prove employer abuse. "At least the employee can now break the contract in cases of abuse, which before was not the case ... but the employee must produce a medical exam as proof, and a medical exam that would stand in court is very expensive" he added.
How much the rights in the contract will be enforced in practice is therefore the only real indicator of its value. "How will they know that my employer allowed me to sleep for eight hours? How will they know my employer gives me 24 hours rest per week?" one domestic worker asked.
The decree to be released at the same time, entitled "decision to deal with organizing the work of agencies" will follow an earlier, weaker decree to define the role of labor recruitment agencies and to provide guidelines for their regulation.
"Some provisions are positive ... it seems to read that the agency will not be able to withhold the employee's wages, and if that tackles the issue of the first three months of pay that is frequently withheld from workers then that would be an important step," Houry commented.
In both cases, the effectiveness of these new measures lies in the willingness of officials to ensure their enforcement. The Labor Ministry declined to comment to The Daily Star about how these new measures will be enforced.
When asked what he believes these two advancements represent in the battle for migrant domestic workers' rights, Houry remained steadfast in his insistence that these women are due greater justice: "We've come a long way in officials recognizing there is a problem, but the pressure has to continue until we see a substantial improvement."

AKarah Byrns
Special to The Daily Star
February 21, 2009

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