Migrant Domestic Workers Form Union amid Government Opposition
In late January, more than 200 migrant domestic workers came together in Beirut, Lebanon to establish the first ever trade union of migrants in the Arab world. Supported by the National Federation of Worker’s Union in Lebanon (FENASOL), these workers hailed from places as varied as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines. While this is a great victory for the protection and promotion of the rights of this community, the government has put up a stiff resistance against the formation of the union. We at Asylum Access strongly support the right of the migrant workers to form unions and urge the government to take a more enabling approach towards addressing their issues.
Migrant workers in Lebanon and the Middle East in general work under appalling conditions. Devoid of the protections of labor laws, they face several challenges ranging from delayed or non-payment of wages and miserable living conditions, to physical and sexual violence. In addition to this, many migrants throughout the Middle East are subject to the kafala sponsorship system, a labor employment model that binds workers to a single employer; this system leaves such migrants in a near-bondage situation.
In spite of such rampant exploitation, the Lebanese Ministry of Labour has termed the formation of the union as “illegal”. The Labour Minister Sejaan Azzi says “Lebanese law forbids foreigners from forming unions”. While the Ministry acknowledges that “[a]dvanced laws would solve the problems that the [migrant worker] sector is suffering from”, their opposition is made clear when they refer to the union as an “illegal syndicate” within the same statement.
According to the ILO figures, there are more than 2,50,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. FENASOL’s proposal to the government stipulates provisions for written contracts, health insurance, time-off, decent living conditions and fair compensation for all these workers. However, the implication of the government opposition to the union is that they will continue to be governed by the kafala system, lacking any kind of labor protection.
The kafala system, regarded by many human rights organizations as a form of modern slavery, stipulates that the migrant workers require a sponsor to remain in the country, typically their employer. Since their legal status is so firmly tied to their employment status, they are chained to their jobs as leaving the jobs would mean running a high risk of deportation. Thus, this arrangement reinforces the complete dependence of the migrants on their employers, aggravating severe rights violations and abusive conditions. However, many legal activists point out that the kafala system does not have legal sanctity; it is simply a custom that has evolved into a de-facto law over the years.
In the light of these conditions, it is critical that the Lebanese government takes a more pro-active approach to address these issues. First and foremost, migrant workers should be brought under the purview of basic labor protection laws. Decent living and working conditions are an imperative to ensure basic human rights as well as workplace rights.
Secondly, the kafala system needs to be reformed urgently or abolished altogether. The recruitment and work conditions should be formalized, regulated and closely monitored to ensure the protection and welfare of migrant workers.
Lastly, the restrictions on the formation of unions by foreigners need to be immediately revoked. Unions are a legitimate expression of solidarity and a forum to foster collective action. The rights of individuals to organize themselves into a formal collective need to be positively upheld.
The extent to which these developments can affect the rights of the refugee community is a subject that begs deeper examination. Given that Lebanon is one of the most prominent destinations for Syrian refugees, the persistence of the kafala system combined with the government’s opposition to the formation of unions by any non-nationals might pose some very serious challenges for the realization of refugee work rights in the future.
Divya Varma is the Advocacy Fellow at Asylum Access. She is a Fulbright scholar from India and received her Master’s in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She previously worked on migration and labor issues in India.