Domestic workers in Lebanon push for syndicate

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Domestic workers having their documents inspected by the Lebanese General Security at Beirut's airport. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Faten Elhajj

Published Monday, March 24, 2014

Domestic workers in Lebanon have not given up yet; against all odds, they remain committed to a unified campaign aimed at forming their own syndicate. Recently, the number of women joining the preliminary committee, hoping to turn it into an independent syndicate, has risen, and they were pleased to talk about their needs and to suggest solutions for their problems.

Rose and her friends were preparing for a human rights ceremony. This Madagascarian young woman was proud that domestic workers were in charge of organizing the whole event. She was all dressed up, wearing a traditional Madagascarian outfit and talking to the media about what she dubbed as “our real image.”

“What should I say? I have so many things to say that newspapers and TV screens are not enough. I want people to know that we are complete human beings and we have many skills other than working in houses. We can passionately express our feelings. We can read and write and we come from respected families. We have fathers and mothers that we love and that love us back,” Rose said.

She added: “we can go out and show society how pretty we are and how smart we are, how we can have a distinct presence, just like any other woman, and we can stand on the frontline to fight for our rights, exactly like all laborers.”

According to Rose, domestic workers are fighting a unified battle despite coming from different countries. “When we sat together and met each other, we discovered that there are no differences between Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Madagascarians, Ethiopians, Benineses, Bengals, and Cameroonians when it comes to our working conditions. Basically, each and every one of us wants to be treated like a human being”.

The domestic workers postponed their ceremony for a few minutes as they waited for some of their colleagues coming from Beirut neighbourhoods of Sabra and Tariq al-Jdideh. They said “many activists come from that region,” but they could not join them because of the clashes that erupted in the area on the morning of the ceremony.

Each woman wore a traditional outfit and they spent some time taking souvenir photos before taking the stage at the UNESCO Palace to sing their new anthem. The lyrics called for equal rights with Lebanese laborers and asked for support in making the change happen, which would put workers and citizens in a better position.

Domestic workers are demanding their rights, and according to Zeina Mezher, the national project coordinator of the International Labour Organization (ILO) project Promoting Rights of Women Domestic Workers, they chose two occasions that are dear to them to launch the ceremony: International Women’s Day and Mothers’ Day.

These women are determined to use any occasion to make their voices heard, but with joy and in a manner that reflects their diverse cultures. They asked Mezher if Lebanese women were allowed to celebrate International Women’s Day and if a Lebanese woman employer would respect a domestic worker for fighting for her rights as a woman and as a laborer. Rose does not believe it is the case when it comes to the second question.

Workers’ meetings started months ago within the framework of a project launched by the ILO in coordination with local NGOs seeking to bring in domestic workers to identify their own needs and to suggest solutions for their problems.

Following many sessions held under the umbrella of the National Union of Workers and Employees Syndicates in Lebanon, domestic workers realized they have to impose their right in forming a syndicate. So they established a multinational committee and decided to fight this battle to the end.

These workers are quite aware of all the challenges they will have to face, particularly legitimizing their presence within the framework of the Lebanese labor law. However, the committee keeps getting bigger and bigger with more women from African and Asian origins joining. They believe this is their cause and volunteering in the committee is their duty to keep this movement going, regardless of the projects launched by local NGOs and international organizations. In fact, domestic workers drafted an objectives’ list which was read by Emme Razanajay from Madagascar and Bandaline Binyiro from Philippines.

The women called upon the Lebanese government to enact laws organizing their profession and to allow them to form a democratic syndicate. They called to abolish the sponsorship system and to treat domestic workers properly at airports while caring for them in case of death or disease.

Turning to their own governments, Emme called to hold training sessions for domestic workers about bilateral agreements signed with Lebanon in order to organize recruitment and to provide a legal protection system in Lebanon that would reduce the dangers they face.

Domestic workers called upon Lebanese employers to limit working hours and to acknowledge their rights to have a weekly day off and annual leave, while ending all sorts of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse they are being subjected to, and asked to be spared from all tasks that would put their lives in danger.

According to Gima Gosto from the Philippines, the committee only aims to provide domestic laborers with the rights stipulated in the International Declaration for Human Rights (right to equality, healthcare, social security, social service, education and rest, freedom of speech and peaceful gathering).

“Why are we deprived of the minimum wage or from being paid overtime? Why are we deprived of a day off, an annual leave? Or maternity leave?” she asked, adding “how can Lebanon call itself a democratic country while domestic workers are not enjoying such a democracy?”

“Each one of us believes that domestic work is the job that makes every other job possible. Giving us our rights is just the beginning and then every domestic worker sitting in this hall would feel protected by the law,” Gasto added.

Frank Hagman, regional VP for Arab states in the ILO, promised the organization would put pressure on its local and international partners in order to provide a safe environment that would organize domestic workers’ rights through an official syndicate acknowledged by the Lebanese authorities.

Labor Minister Sejaan Qazi was absent from the ceremony and was instead represented by his advisor Mounir al-Deek, who quoted a social researcher from the 19th century, saying “between the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, the law is the sole liberator.” He also promised to discuss everything from the meeting, as well as the campaign objectives with officials in the ministry.

Equal pay for equal work

Is there a real will to create a new syndicate structure that goes beyond the labor syndicates that sold themselves to capitalists and to the authorities? What are the chances for the syndicate to become a reality? Castro Abdullah, head of the National Union of Workers and Employees Syndicate seemed optimistic in asking such questions involving the rights of the labor class, including the right to work and the right to set a flexible wage scale, developing social security, amending the labor law, ratifying the ranks and salaries system in the public sector, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, and enhancing work conditions for domestic workers.

Abdullah stressed on the urgency of these steps, as about 20 percent of Lebanese are suffering from poverty while banks and financial institutions are increasingly controlling the country, and humans are being enslaved by other humans.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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