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"Maid in Lebanon": protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers

Driven by extreme poverty in their home countries, thousands of female migrant workers go each year to the Arab States in order to earn enough money to support their families. What they find there is sometimes not what they expected. , a film directed by Carol Mansour and funded by Caritas Sweden, the Netherlands Embassy in Beirut and the ILO depicts the gamble these women take when they decide to leave their families and go to work in Lebanon.

Article | 13 April 2006

BEIRUT, Lebanon (ILO Online) - Since 1973, more than 100,000 women have been migrating from poorer countries to work behind the closed doors of the Lebanese employer's home. Some have their dreams fulfilled; others find themselves in a financial and emotional bind.

Maids, like Nirosha, had kind employers who treated them well paying them their dues. In such cases, the migrant domestic workers were able to save money and return home. "I'm going to miss madam", says Nirosha, "madam gave me everything".

Others, like Vimala, a Sri Lankan woman portrayed in the film between sobs were victims of violence. "When they started cutting my hair, I begged: 'Beat me more, but don't cut my hair'", she says.

Domestic workers like Vimala and Nirosha have fled the extreme poverty in which many Sri Lankans live in small villages hundreds of kilometres away from the capital Colombo. "The villages we come from are poor and have no running water or electricity", explains a Sri Lankan in the film.

Like in many other countries, these women are unprotected by local laws. They often receive maltreatment in the form of non-payment of salaries and in some cases mental, physical and sexual abuse.

"Lebanese newspapers often draw the attention of public opinion to women domestic workers who have been abused by their employers. The media can play an important role in raising awareness of workers' rights to decent working conditions", comments Simel Esim, Gender Specialist in the ILO's Regional Office for the Arab States in Beirut.

Over the last years, the ILO has been advocating the rights of migrant domestic workers to be acknowledged by the governments in the region.

"The promotion of international labour standards that safeguard the rights of workers is key issue from ILO's perspective. Such protection is oft en absent for migrant workers throughout the region, and in countries where labour standards have been adopted, these workers simply remain unaware of their rights", explains Simel Esim.

According to Simel Esim, "it is crucial to have the media on our side when promoting workers' rights, and particularly migrant workers' rights. Unfortunately, the media oft en underpins social scepticism towards foreign workers which makes our work all the more difficult. An important part of our efforts therefore concentrates on building the capacity of the media to address and integrate the rights and gender dimensions in labour-related issues".

The Arab Region has received large flows of migrant labour from East and South-East Asia, and also from Africa, in the last three decades. The majority of women migrant workers end up in domestic service. Employment agencies are often the first points of contact for migrant workers seeking employment.

"One of our aims is to make these agencies more responsive to the rights of workers and to include them in discussions on possible changes in national labour policies", says Simel Esim.

Following a request from the Lebanese Ministry of Labour and in cooperation with it, as well as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Development Fund for Women and Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre, the ILO recently organized a national awareness-raising workshop on the situation of women migrant domestic workers as well as identifying possible measures to address the difficulties they face. Key recommendation emerging from this workshop include introducing a standardised employment contract for all domestic workers that could be promoted by employment agencies throughout the country and providing migrant domestic workers with booklets that inform them of their rights as workers.

Following-up on these recommendations, the Lebanese Minister of Labour issued a decree establishing a high-level national steering committee to review national labour law, elaborate a unified contract for domestic workers and produce a "rights and responsibilities booklet" for this category of workers by the end of May 2006. The Committee will also work out a two-year action plan between June and July 2006.

"Once it becomes institutional practice for employment agencies to issue standardised employment contracts to all migrant workers, and once these contracts are registered in national databases, concerned national authorities are much better equipped to investigate complaints and mediate between employers and employees", explains the ILO expert.

The increase in the number of women migrant domestic workers in the region could be associated with more Arab women entering into higher education whilst giving birth to fewer children. One key question which is being explored by ILO research is how precisely is the work of migrant domestic workers impacting the labour force participation of Arab women.

According to Simel Esim, "very few women workers are organised. Combined with the largely unorganised stock of women migrant workers in the region, we are faced with a tremendous task when seeking to provide avenues for better employment conditions".

"Through the stories of women migrant domestic workers from Sri Lanka, the film highlights the need for national and international policies to protect the rights of migrant workers and their families in Lebanon and across the Arab world", she concludes.