Megan McKee, University of Pittsburgh School of Law Class of 2012, worked as a legal researcher for the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law and is currently working in Lebanon. She writes about the need for greater rights for migrant workers in that country, especially for those employed as domestic workers...
It is estimated that there are some 50 to 100 million domestic workers worldwide. The vast majority of these workers are young girls and women, and a large percentage of them are migrants. They serve as nannies, housekeepers, cooks, and caregivers who are most densely concentrated in the Middle East and Asia. Since they are often excluded from workers' and laborers' rights schemes, they often suffer from unpaid wages, excessive hours, little time off, and a high frequency of physical and sexual abuse, making them some of the most exploited workers in the world. Additionally, their status as young, impoverished, foreign females, further contributes to their vulnerability and marginalization. During its annual conference this month, the International Labor Organization adopted a historic treaty that aims to create an international standard for protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers for the first time. The Convention on Domestic Workers [PDF] strives to establish standards that bring the rights of domestic workers in line with the rights more commonly enjoyed by individuals who are employed outside the home. The convention states that domestic workers must work reasonable hours, must have a weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours, limits in-kind payment, requires clear information on terms of employment, a minimum wage, and basic rights such as freedom of association and collective bargaining.
The adoption of the treaty by most delegates from Arab nations was remarkable due to both the large number of migrant domestic workers employed in the region and their previous opposition to the convention. Previously viewing the effort as unnecessary and impractical, suggesting that workers employed in the home were treated as members of the family, the delegates' change of heart signals an important and necessary step toward the radical change in thinking that must take place regarding the rights of domestic workers. However, despite supporting the convention, the delegates quite aptly highlighted challenges to ratification, implementation, and enforcement in their respective countries.
Last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 54-page report entitled "Without Protection" that detailed the treatment of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. It uncovered a particularly grim reality for the nation's estimated 225,000 migrant workers hailing from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh, among others. The report reviewed over 100 judicial decisions concerning various complaints made by migrant domestic workers and did not find a single instance in which employers that had forcibly confined workers to the house, confiscated their passports, or denied them food were actually charged with a crime. It further found that the lack of a viable and accessible complaint reporting mechanism, lengthy judicial proceedings, and a restrictive visa policy further discouraged many from pursing or even reporting abuses of their rights in the first place. Based on the cases reviewed, HRW estimated that criminal claims took an average of 24 months to resolve, that complaints for unpaid wages took between 21 and 54 months, and that even simplified complaints made in labor courts took an average of 32 months. Additionally, under Lebanon's work visa sponsorship system, a worker who leaves an employer, even to file a legally viable complaint, forfeits her right to stay in Lebanon and faces potential detention and deportation as an illegal alien.
Nonetheless, to say that abuse is not prosecuted altogether would be incorrect. For instance, some cases of severe abuse have been prosecuted but they continue to be rare and unfailingly result in lenient sentences. For example, in a widely hailed case from December 2009, an employer was convicted of repeatedly beating her domestic worker. However, the sentence was only 15 days. In another similar case from June 2010, a Lebanese criminal court issued what appears to be the most severe sentence to date to an employer who repeatedly beat and forcibly confined her domestic worker to the house. Yet the sentence was just one month.
Perhaps a testament to the harsh working conditions in Lebanon is the HRW finding that on average more than one migrant domestic worker dies every week, either as a result of suicide or during an attempt to escape from the high-rise apartments their employers confine them to. The Filipino government's 2007 decision to ban their citizens from working in Lebanon is another testament to the subpar conditions workers face. Likewise, nations such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia have introduced significant measures to better protect their citizens employed as domestic workers in Lebanon.
Lebanon has made attempts to ameliorate the situation through legislation. For example, it recently adopted measures to regulate employment agencies and to adopt a mandatory standardized contract that would include provisions such as at least one day off a week. Furthermore, the Lebanese Ministers of Labor and the Interior recently brought the situation to the attention of the parliament with promises of reform. However, while currently marked by relative calm compared to much of the Middle East, Lebanon has dealt with a series of disputes, setbacks, and political changes that have left the central government paralyzed since January. Accordingly, attempts at reform have languished and the measures seeking to regulate employment agencies and standardize contracts still need to be implemented properly.
Nevertheless, legal discussions, attempted legislative reform, and even the ratification of international treaties is arguably simple in comparison to fomenting the radical change in thinking that the region needs to undergo in order to see these reforms implemented. In Lebanon, conventional wisdom dictates that domestic workers are little more than servants attached to a household. As such, they are accorded very little respect. Their personal rights and freedoms even less so.
For example, it is widely accepted in Lebanon that the initial investment an employer makes in bringing domestic workers into the country justifies restrictions in the workers' movement, both through confiscating their travel documents and through confining them to the house. This is viewed as rightfully limiting the employer's risk of loss as it makes it virtually impossible for the worker to run away. This mentality makes the complete forfeiture of the freedom of movement one of the normative expectations of the job, and it is even prevalent among employers that generally treat their domestic employees well in other ways. It is particularly common in the early stages of employment before some level of trust has been established between employer and employee.
While the existence of more extreme forms of abuse are concerning and should be taken seriously, the more pervasive and alarming issue in Lebanon is the fact that otherwise relatively humane individuals, who would never physically harm an employee, think nothing of practices that are most certainly still forms of abuse. This is derivative of a mentality in Lebanon, and the region in general, which condones the substandard and inhumane treatment of these workers. This mentality arises from prejudice, a disdain for poverty, and what is viewed as degrading work. The failure of both the nation's police and prosecutors to take instances of physical violence against migrant domestic workers seriously, often turning a blind eye to it altogether, and the failure of the nation's lawmakers to effectively implement protections and accord rights to migrant domestic workers, serves to demonstrate the widespread and pervasive nature of this mentality.
What is encouraging, however, are several recent events that suggest a trend towards a more humane view of domestic workers in Lebanon. Just a week after the Arab delegates to the ILO conference supported the adoption of the convention, the UN Country Team in Lebanon adopted a voluntary code of conduct reflecting many of the convention's principles. This code was intended to set a trend in the region and will be followed by all UN staff in Lebanon. Even more suggestive of a changing mentality are the many grassroots efforts raising awareness and providing much needed services and education to migrant workers. This trend can be witnessed in the proliferation of blogs and Facebook groups, and in the activities of local NGOs that serve as safe havens and centers for education and socialization.
It appears that at least a portion of Lebanese society, and perhaps a sizable portion of the younger generation, are beginning to develop a more humane view of domestic workers. This will hopefully carry over to law enforcement officials and labor inspectors, aiding them in identifying and seriously prosecuting violations against domestic workers. With any luck, it will also encourage Lebanon's parliament to seriously reform the sponsorship system and properly implement the regulations that have already been adopted.
Megan McKee is the head of JURIST's student commentary service. She is a recent graduate of McGill University, where she completed an honors major in Hispanic Studies and a major in International Development Studies. Megan has also worked for the Social Justice Committee of Montreal on issues of social justice and the rights of domestic and migrant workers.