Saturday, January 18, 2014

Female foreign workers face appalling situation in Lebanon

“My madam never hit me, but her husband was sexually harassing me. He used to ask me to massage his body. He used to touch my breasts and hold me close and rub himself against my body. ... He threatened to kill me if I told my madam. ... He was a large, bald man.” This is the testimony of Nita, a Nepalese woman working in Lebanon.Rotna, a female worker from Bangladesh, only left her employer's house because she was no longer able to eat from the garbage bin. “They used to beat me up a lot, but if they had given me food I would have never left them, despite all the battering,” she said.

These two testimonies are part of what was documented in a study conducted by Kafa, an organization working to eliminate gender-based violence and exploitation in Lebanon, in cooperation with The Legal Agenda. The study documented violations committed against female domestic workers in Lebanon in the context of matching indicators of human trafficking and forced labor in the overall process of recruitment of female domestic workers from their country of origin to the host country.

On Jan. 14, 2014, Kafa held the Protection of Migrant Female Domestic Workers in Lebanon conference. It showed a clear inconsistency between the situation of female domestic workers and the ambitions of civil society to improve that situation on the one hand, and the policy of the Ministry of Labor and official regulations on the other.

While the results of the study conducted confirmed that the indicators of human trafficking and forced labor match the process of recruitment of female domestic workers and their working conditions in Lebanon, Minister of Labor Salim Jreissati painted a rosy picture of what has been achieved so far and what is underway in this regard.

The contradiction was not only in the depiction of reality but also in the perception each party has of the solution to the problem. The civil society organizations hoped Lebanese labor law would cover migrant female workers; the minister of labor indicated that this would not happen, as the relevant draft law is currently in a holding pattern at the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers. While civil society hopes to revive the role of the National Employment Office and make it completely in charge of the whole process of recruiting female workers, Jreissati described the office as decayed and indicated that it would be unable to perform this role. Owners of recruitment offices therefore keep their power in this respect.

The minister of labor revealed an agreement with the director-general of public security, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, for granting female domestic workers the opportunity to change employers after fulfilling their employment contract. However, questions were raised about the mechanisms to be followed for informing these workers of this right while their freedom was restricted, and they were prevented from communicating with the outside world.

The conference fell within the framework of cooperation between Kafa, Anti-Slavery International and the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT). It is part of a wider project on the migration route of female domestic workers from Nepal and their recruitment, specifically to Lebanon. Kafa’s director, Zoya Rouhana, explained the importance of the project, which “aims at empowering female domestic workers recruited from Nepal by training them and supporting them to have a trade union association.” Rouhana asserted that demands to change policies and laws in Lebanon would continue.

The study by Kafa and the Legal Agenda, titled “The Process of Recruitment of Migrant Workers from Nepal and Bangladesh to Lebanon,” and whose preliminary results were revealed yesterday [Jan. 14], documented the whole process, specifically in terms of the indicators of human trafficking and forced labor that match the workers' migration and their working conditions in Lebanon.

The study showed that the vulnerable situation of female workers in Nepal and Bangladesh was exploited by agents and recruiters in the workers' countries of origin. These workers hear many false promises and pay about $1,000 on average for obtaining a job opportunity, which Lebanese employers are unaware of. Agents and recruitment agencies also deceive female workers concerning the nature and conditions of their employment. The women are promised limited working hours, a weekly day off, a monthly salary between $150 and $300, healthcare, a private room, good treatment and the ability to change their employer if they encounter problems. It is worth mentioning that only 60% of female workers signed an employment contract in their country of origin, and that 60% of those with a contract did not understand it or its provisions. In Lebanon, working conditions show that the majority of female domestic workers are locked [in houses] with their identity papers confiscated, that they are treated in a humiliating manner undermining their human dignity and rights and that they are not even recognized as human beings having rights and needs.

Figures show that 82% of the female workers found themselves coerced into forced labor, while 62% of them worked between 16 and 20 hours per day and were unable to take a break. The percentage of those who worked for more than 17 hours per day was as high as 53%. Salaries of 54% of these female workers were confiscated for a month or more. A whopping 90% of them were prevented from going out alone, 91% were denied any weekly day off and more than 50% were locked inside the house they work in. Also, 62% of these workers either slept in the kitchen (19%), the living room (22%) or on the balcony of the house (7%), while 11% shared a room with others (children or elderly). Some of them even reported that they slept near the laundry room, the bathroom or the pantry. With 32% of them not getting enough food, one worker reported that she used to eat dog food because her employers did not provide her with sufficient alimentation. The study documented that 10% of female workers were subject to sexual violence through touching and even rape. One female worker said that her employer beat her to force her to have sex with him, another reported that her female employer tried to shove a stick in her vagina and a third confirmed that she was forced to shower with her employer.

Discrimination in treatment between Bangladeshi and Nepalese female workers was clear. More than half (58%) of Bangladeshi workers stated that they had suffered physical violence from their employers, the employers' relatives or [members of] the recruitment office in Lebanon, as compared with 14% of Nepalese workers. Some female workers were even beaten if they didn’t wake up early, talked on the phone or complained of being sick.

Female workers were unable to change their situations and 82% of them confirmed that they felt forced into work and were unable to change their working conditions. Even when these female workers went to recruitment agencies for help, the rights of some of them were violated and they were subject to various types of violence. Some were even forced to return to their employer’s house. Lawyer Mohana Isaac indicated that the Kafala (sponsorship) system currently applied in Lebanon was not set forth in any legal text, indicating that there were a number of customs and habits in practice. She said that, based on documented studies, this relationship led to an imbalance between the two parties to the contract. It allowed for most of the violations against female workers and the practice of various types of violence, including sexual harassment and rape. According to her, implementation of the Kafala system also makes it hard for these female workers to have access to justice.

The conference included a presentation of the British experience and a presentation by the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, in addition to talks on reducing migrant female workers’ vulnerability.

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