Regional Push for Rights of Women Migrant Workers

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Migrant female workers are among the most marginalized and exploited segments of society in the Middle East. Local NGOs are now seeking regional cooperation to improve the conditions of these workers. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Wednesday, October 5, 2011

NGO representatives from Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt who met at a workshop last week in Amman agreed to establish a regional network to combat the phenomena of violence, trafficking, and exploitation of women migrant workers in the three countries.

Migrant female workers are among the most marginalized and exploited segments of society in the Middle East. Local NGOs are now seeking regional cooperation to improve the conditions of these workers. A regional project was established after a meeting of several NGOs in Amman last week. Funded by the European Union, it will be implemented through a partnership agreement between Amel Association in Beirut, the General Federation of Jordanian Women in Amman, and the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance in Cairo. The network’s activities will focus on how to provide protection for female migrant workers, ways to address worker grievances, and helping workers return to their country of origin if they wish to do so. It also intends to organize legal campaigns aiming to criminalize violations of migrant worker rights in the three countries.

Nidal Jurdi from the UN’s regional Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights says there are few legal safeguards for female domestic workers in Arab countries. According to him, this is due to a lack of awareness about workers’ rights among employers, at the recruitment offices where they are hired, and among government authorities.

Jurdi says that leaving the regulation of contractual relationships to the employer and employee exposes the weaker party — the domestic workers — to unfair conditions that rarely account for their rights. On the other hand, attempts at monitoring their treatment in the workplace conflict with other considerations, like the right to privacy and the sanctity of the home. Jurdi calls for creating a monitoring mechanism to implement the law. This can only be maintained through a system of inspection and follow-up that combines the ability to control the process, streamline the complaints procedure, and communicate effectively with domestic female workers while, at the same time, respecting employers’ right to privacy.

Jurdi hopes to extend the experience of the National Steering Committee in Lebanon in managing domestic work to the rest of the Arab world. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights participated in the steering committee meetings organized by the cabinet. The committee’s task is to prepare draft legislation that regulates domestic work, and produce a handbook on domestic work and a standard employment contract.

The president of Amel Association, Kamel Mehanna, says that recent reforms, including the adoption of a standard employment contract for domestic migrant workers in Lebanon, was not enough to ensure the protection of workers from maltreatment and exploitation. This was not enough, he argued, because of the absence of an implementation mechanism and the lack of accountability for employers who break the law. Mehanna thinks that the existing arrangements favor employers over employees and discourage workers whose rights have been violated from seeking redress or compensation.

Nadia Shamroukh, regional coordinator of a project to improve the situation of female migrant workers in the Arab world, focused on similar problems in Jordan. She noted however that Lebanon had three times as many domestic workers as Jordan, despite Jordan’s larger population (6 million compared to 4.5 million). Shamroukh outlined the efforts of the General Federation of Jordanian Women to address these issues. They have a center which helps protect battered women migrant workers, and the group also provides psychosocial, medical, and some legal services.

In a paper titled “Inside the Home, Outside the Law,” Egyptian judge Amr al-Shimi presented a set of proposals to improve the conditions of domestic workers and others who are excluded from the legal protections provided by the Egyptian Unified Labor Code of 2003. These propose a clear legislative text that does not exclude domestic and other workers from the rights, obligations, and other legal protections provided by the labor code. Al-Shimi also suggested laws enabling domestic workers to organize collectively through a representative union set up under the trade union law, as well as the establishment of an official minimum or ‘reasonable’ wage for these workers. The proposals broadly provide for the criminalization of human trafficking, the prohibition of child labor in the domestic service sector, and the development of a standard employment contract that ensures working social security protection mechanisms.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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