Marie Constant has worked as a domestic worker in Lebanon since 1997. Originally from Madagascar, Constant has been fortunate to have a good employer. But most migrant domestic workers are not so lucky.
“In general, domestic workers [must] work from morning until evening with no specific break time and no holidays,” she says, speaking in French through a translator. “When we receive guests, we don’t have choice but to stay up late working until the guests leave, which is usually around midnight or sometimes around 1 a.m. Most domestic workers don’t have the right for the weekly leave.”
“And because of these rights abuse, we decided to form a union to defend our rights.”
(Constant discusses domestic workers and the struggle for rights on the job in this Workers Equality Forum video.)
‘We Are Advancing”
Marie Constant (center), joined other domestic worker rights advocates in Morocco last year for a Solidarity Center forum on decent work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
In 2015, she joined 300 domestic workers at the founding congress of the Domestic Workers Union in Lebanon, the first union of migrant domestic workers in the Arab region.
The union “is a source of great pride for us,” Constant says. Affiliated to the National Federation of Workers’ and Employees’ Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL), the union is yet to be officially recognized by Lebanon.
Much of Constant’s outreach involves informing domestic workers about the options for improving their wages and working conditions.
“We try to reach out to all the domestic workers women in most the regions in order to educate them about their rights.”
Despite the challenges, Constant recognizes domestic workers in Lebanon have taken big steps toward achieving dignity and decency on the job to which they and all workers are entitled, and she is optimistic about the future.
“We have a lot of hope. Even if we know we have a long way to go and that there are a lot of hurdles along the way, we are advancing, not regressing.”
Some two dozen human rights organizations are condemning the detention of two Nepali domestic workers in Lebanon, one of whom was deported.
Sushila Rana and Roja Maya Limbu were detained “without formal and clear explanation of the charges levelled against them,” according to the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). Rana was deported December 10 (International Human Rights Day), while Limbu has been detained for more than a week without access to a lawyer.
(Your organization can sign the joint statement by IDWF, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations.)
Sushila Rana and Roja Maya Limbu spoke at the founding congress of the domestic workers’ union in Lebanon in January 2015. Credit: IDWF
The two woman helped found the domestic workers’ union in Lebanon in January 2015.
“This is a serious violation of basic human rights and (the International Labor Organization’s) core conventions on the right to organize and on freedom of association,” says Myrtle Witbooi, IDWF president. “We also call on the government of Lebanon to observe and abide by Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which ensures the right to be free from arbitrary arrest and detention.”
Migrant Workers Exploited, Have Few Rights
Migrant workers to the Middle East are rarely protected by labor laws and generally denied the ability to exercise fundamental human rights, including freedom of association, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, according to a recent report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and of association. Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon commonly report non-payment of wages, forced confinement, employers’ refusal to provide time off, and verbal and physical abuse.
Like most migrant workers around the world, many are forced to go into debt to pay excessive fees to labor brokers to obtain the jobs. Once in the country, they are governed by the repressive kafala system, which ties a domestic workers’ visa and work permit to one employer. Kafala results in situations where employers have unchecked control over migrant workers, exposing the latter to greater risk of exploitation and abuse.
Freedom of movement for the estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is restricted by employers who take workers’ passports and laws that limit their access to public places like restaurants, unless accompanied by their employer.
A 2010 Human Rights Watch report said that migrant domestic workers in Lebanon were dying of unnatural causes at a rate of one per week. Most of the deaths were attributed to suicide — many of the victims were falling from buildings while apparently trying to escape their employers.