BEIRUT: At the end of last week, on an otherwise insignificant Sunday, something momentous happened: Lebanon became home to the region’s first domestic workers union.
The move faces serious resistance from the Labor Ministry, which has called the union “illegal,” but has also been hailed as a major step toward better protecting the rights of some quarter of a million migrants who are among the most vulnerable parts of Lebanese society.
“We bring those people to Lebanon in a legal way and we let them work in a legal and reside in a legal way,” Castro Abdallah, president of the National Federation of Labor Unions, told The Daily Star. “So why not giving them the right to be organized also in a legal way, in light of their significant number?”
“These foreign women work at our homes and clean our messes, so the least we can do is offer them the right to be organized in a union,” he added. “They are human beings after all.”
The launch of the union – made up of Lebanese and foreign members – on Jan. 25 saw about 350 domestic workers of various nationalities gather for its inaugural congress. It was the result of years of work by the National Federation of Labor Unions, with the support of the International Labor Organization, to help some 250,000 foreign workers fight for their rights.
According to Human Rights Watch’s 2015 World Report, domestic workers are “excluded from the labor law and subject to restrictive immigration rules based on the ‘kafala’ system, the visa sponsorship system that ties workers to their employers and puts workers at risk of exploitation and abuse.”
The union has so far only elected its 12-member executive board, and must wait until this Sunday – the only day in the week domestic workers are usually given off – to hold elections for the president and other specific positions.
“This union is definitely the first in the Arab world,” Abdallah said.
Zeina Mezher, Lebanon project manager at the ILO, praised the union as “an opportunity for workers that often feel isolated to connect and advocate on their issues collectively using bargaining tools available to workers in other sectors.”
“The next step is to help them engage in a meaningful dialogue with the government and employers,” she added.
But this may be more difficult than it sounds, as the Labor Ministry is not pleased with the development.
“Advanced laws would solve the problems that the [domestic worker] sector is suffering from, not the formation of groups under the guise of a syndicate that will get them involved in new conflicts,” it said in a statement released Monday.
Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi is in the process of promoting a draft law, based on ILO Convention 189, to the Cabinet that he says would better serve domestic workers’ rights than a union. The law would require a written contract between employer and employee in the native languages of both parties, an insurance contract for the employee, and an eight-hour daily working limit, with exceptions in certain circumstances. Convention 189 sets out international labor standards for the industry.
“Unofficial sides have been trying for weeks now to create a union for domestic workers in Lebanon,” the ministry statement said. “The Labor Ministry does not desire to argue about this illegal issue.”
Until the ministry approves the new body, it remains unofficial.
Regardless, those involved in the union are excited, seeing it as an important step in the direction of the international standards that were set in Geneva four years ago.
Gemma Justo, a 48-year-old Filipino domestic worker, has been in Lebanon since she was 27.
“When I first arrived, there was not much awareness of such a thing as domestic workers rights,” she said with a laugh. “That was until June 2011 when the ILO Convention 189 was born. That gave us courage and inspiration that we can, by organizing ourselves, form a union so that we can have a basis for decent work and better legal protection.”
Justo says she is treated well where she works, but is painfully aware not everyone has it so good. So, last Sunday, she joined the newly created union’s executive board.
“It is a small step, and a big step,” Justo said. “Lebanon is the first one to do this thing in the Arab region. So although we are small, we are also big.”