BEIRUT: The “first step” in bringing order to the domestic worker sector was unveiled Thursday by caretaker Labor Minister Butros Harb, in the form of a draft law that would compel employers to pay their employees on time every month, give them a weekly day off, and ensure they live in decent conditions.
Harb told a news conference at the headquarters of the Cabinet in Mathaf that he expected “strong opposition” to the legislation, which he intends to pass on to his successor at the ministry, while vowing to follow up the matter in Parliament as an MP.
“It might not meet everyone’s aspirations, but it’s a very big first step,” Harb said.
The draft legislation was the product of several months of intensive meetings that gathered representatives of General Security, the Beirut Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, and civil society groups such as Caritas, which are active in foreign migrant worker advocacy.
Harb acknowledged that he had earlier doubted the veracity of reports about the widespread mistreatment of foreign domestic workers, believing them to be part of a conspiracy to demean Lebanon’s image – before he became minister of labor.
“I was amazed [after assuming office] … when I discovered that [these reports] were not far from the reality,” Harb said. “I decided to act after a very harsh report by Human Rights Watch in September 2010.”
Harb said the reason behind the many cases of abuse of foreign domestic workers, who are believed to number around 110,000 people, overwhelmingly female, was the simple lack of a law regulating the relationship among migrant workers and employers. In recent years, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia have all acted to either restrict or ban their nationals from working in Lebanon.
The result is a 46-article law that sets down the foundations for various aspects of working conditions, wages and end-of-service compensation, and follow-up by the authorities.
Article 10 sets a maximum of 60 hours as the work week, while requiring a daily period of rest of nine continuous hours. Article 11 stipulates a weekly rest period of 24 continuous hours, or in other words a weekly day off, which the minister and others noted could constitute the biggest point of outrage for employers who insist on seven-day weeks from their household workers.
Some employers might find another objectionable item in Article 11, which allows workers, after agreeing with their employer, to spend their day off outside the home.
A ministry source indicated that further legislation or implementing decrees would iron out whether a worker’s passport could be held during the duration of the work contract.
Article 16 compels employers to pay their employees monthly and provide them with a receipt, while Article 25 stipulates an end-of-service payment equivalent to one month’s salary for every year of employment. If the period of employment is longer than five years, the compensation is calculated at 65 percent of a month’s salary for every year.
Article 4 bans anyone found guilty of a misdemeanor or felony against a domestic worker from employing them in the future, and Article 31 forbids owners of employment agencies from collecting any direct or indirect fees from foreign domestics.
Under Articles 41-43, the Labor Ministry will create a special unit of social workers to help implement the law, through home inspections and other measures.
Harb said he personally intervened to add a last-minute provision that would compel at least two local newspapers to publish the details of judicial verdicts against employers who mistreat their domestic workers.
Harb declined to make predictions about whether foreign countries would lift their bans on domestics in Lebanon, if the legislation secures parliamentary approval.
“But if we don’t act, we will face more bans,” Harb commented.