Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Domestic workers highlight sponsorship system flaws

Via Daily Star



BEIRUT: Domestic workers tied to Lebanese “employers” danced in a flash mob on Beirut’s Corniche Sunday evening, in a performance designed to highlight the flaws in the sponsorship, or kafala, system which governs their work contracts. Organized by the non-governmental organizations KAFA and Insan, the event, accompanied by live music, drew a large crowd, and after the short, choreographed dance, flyers were handed out, and those who favor abolishing the system were invited to sign a large banner.

There are 200,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, and the sponsorship system legally ties each of them to their employer, creating, as KAFA calls it, “a master/slave relationship.”

In February, KAFA presented a draft proposal to replace the kafala system – which was introduced in the 1946 legal code – to which then outgoing Labor Minister Charbel Nahhas gave his full support. The issue has not been discussed at government level since.

Speaking to The Daily Star Sunday, Maya al-Ammar, from KAFA, said that “we are trying to highlight the issue of sponsorship using this tie between ‘employer’ and worker, as this represents the relationship. But the power balance means that the worker is in the weak position.”

“Replacing it with an alternative system based on human rights will benefit both worker and employer,” she added, as the employer would also no longer have such a sense of responsibility over the worker.

Claire, from Nepal, has been working in Lebanon for five years. One of the dancers at Sunday’s flash mob, which had premiered an hour earlier at Beirut Mall in Tayyouneh, she said that were the kafala system to be abolished, “I think 90 percent of our problems would disappear, including the suicides.”

One migrant domestic worker kills herself each week in Lebanon, according to Human Rights Watch, which has also urged the government to reform the kafala system, and bring the employment of domestic workers under the Labor Law.

“That’s why we’re here today, we have to create more awareness of the flaws in the system,” Claire added. “People know the system exists, but they don’t care about us or our rights.”

“We don’t have any rights, and if we do, they are not respected.”

The event itself was held Sunday as this is the only day that the vast majority of domestic workers get off work.

Many are often locked in the house, have their passports and papers confiscated, and work long hours without breaks. Others are physically or sexually abused.

Another of the dancers, May from the Philippines, has been working in Lebanon for 22 years.

While she said that she has no complaints with her current employer, it is important for her to continually work to improve the situation of those “less fortunate than myself.”

“This issue needs more attention. We are just asking for more freedom,” she said.

“I hope and pray every day that the situation will improve.”

The Philippines, Kenya, Madagascar and Ethiopia are among those countries which have actually banned their citizens from coming to work in Lebanon, although many migrant domestic workers find ways around the bans, such as coming via a third country.

The ban makes it hard for May, who has one daughter and four grandchildren, to return home, and the last time she visited was in 2004.

At a trial run of the flash mob last week in Jounieh, many onlookers were keen to sign the banner in support of the abolition of the kafala system once it had been explained to them that the system was akin to modern day slavery, Ammar said.

“It’s so much to do with understanding and employers don’t realize how the government is actually leaving the management of the worker up to them,” she added, stressing that an overhaul of the system would benefit both parties.

“We are trying to untie this knot,” she added.

While there is a long way to go, Ammar conceded, “if we start with an overhaul of the sponsorship system it will be a good beginning.”

In terms of the campaign, the next steps, Ammar said, would be to try and meet again with representatives from the Labor Ministry and seek to implement small regulations, if not an entire replacement of the kafala system.

These steps would include a revamping of the processes that govern the hiring of domestic workers, which is currently managed by recruitment agencies, many of which are unlicensed. It also calls for the National Employment Office, under the Labor Ministry, to take responsibility for the entry, residence, employment, transfer and departure of migrant domestic workers.

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