A historic event in the struggle of male and female workers in Lebanon happened on January 25. The founding conference aimed at establishing a “new” type of union, the domestic workers union, was held. In the past few days, the Ministry of Labor tried to prevent the holding of the conference. It threatened to use the Internal Security Forces to break it up, and called on supporters to back down or face consequences. The ministry announced that it will not grant such a union a license on the grounds that it violates Lebanese laws that deny male and female foreign workers the right to form their own unions, leaving domestic workers without any legal protection.
It was a moving scene. The color red dominated the room, including the slogans and banners that demanded the abolition of the sponsorship system as a main objective. Red also dominated the unified clothing worn by the participants, which reflects the steadfastness of this movement and the commitment of its female members to the cause: resisting the worst forms of exploitation in the labor market.
On Sunday, more than 200 women, from the persecuted of different nationalities, flocked to a wedding hall facing the headquarters of the Federation of Workers and Employees Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL) in the area of Wata Msaytbeh in Beirut.
They attended in large numbers, exceeding expectations and overcoming the subordinate and acquiescent environment that shackles workers in Lebanon. The participants declared the founding of the first trade union for domestic workers, albeit under a pseudonym, “The General Union of Cleaning Workers and Social Care,” and a fake constituent body that includes Lebanese citizens working in this field, as well as similar or related fields, in order to be consistent to unfair Lebanese laws that inherently violate the rights and freedoms a broad segment, which today represents an important portion of paid laborers.
"We want to be treated like human beings, like real workers," said Leticia, a Filipina who was assaulted and raped by her employer several years ago.
“With this union, I will no longer feel alone in the face of abuse," she told AFP.
The new initiative is unprecedented in the Arab world, which the United Nations says is home to some 30 million migrant workers.
Rights groups frequently accuse Lebanon and Gulf states of racist and degrading treatment of migrant domestic workers, who are often referred to simply as "servants" or "Sri Lankans," regardless of their nationality.
Under the controversial "kafala" (sponsorship) system that Lebanon enforces, migrant domestic workers are left at the mercy of their employers.
It restricts workers from moving to a new job before their contracts end unless they obtain their employer's consent, and handing over their passports to their employers, trapping many in abusive situations.
Living conditions can be so abysmal that some countries, including the Philippines, have forbidden their citizens from taking up new work contracts in Lebanon.
Gemma, a 48-year-old who has lived in Lebanon since 1993, told AFP: "We domestic workers are not seen as real employees."
"I have a friend whose employer did not allow her to eat any more than a piece of bread and a bit of lettuce, because she did not want her to gain weight," Gemma said. "Some employers lock up their domestic workers in their rooms, while others won't pay their employees for months at a time."
Threats from the Lebanese Labor Ministry
On the eve of Sunday’s conference, Lebanese authorities mobilized the security services to prevent such an unexpected breach against stifling and abusive labor laws.
For his part, Minister of Labor Sajaan Azzi made direct threats to the organizers. He contacted them on Saturday, January 24, threatening to use the security forces to disrupt the conference by force. He also made indirect threats to FENASOL, which took it upon itself to form and support this union under its umbrella (with the support of the International Labor Organization and the International Trade Union Confederation).
Unwavered, the organizers rejected these threats and warnings, describing them as “rude” and part of a series of repressive methods commonly against trade union freedoms, which are not based on any law.
“No penal offense or a violation of the penal law has been committed in the assembly of workers who are doing a legitimate act, which is to claim their rights,” said human rights activist lawyer Nizar Saghiyeh.
The idea of establishing this union is not new. Domestic workers have struggled for years to obtain their most basic rights. They are not protected under the labor law. The law was misinterpreted to deny them their right to organize unions, despite the absence of an express provision that prohibit them from establishing a union. Female domestic workers found that it is no longer sufficient to limit the confrontation to a number of demonstrations organized by “civil society” groups on special occasions. Rather, they decided to take a more progressive step.
In 2012, the union was conceived by seven domestic workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Ethiopia. With the collaboration of fellow Lebanese domestic workers, they submitted a formal request to the Ministry of Labor to establish a union under the name, “General Union of Cleaning Workers and Social Care.” According to the rules of procedure, the union’s tasks include organizing workers in similar and related occupations that fall within the same scope, including domestic workers. This formula was drafted by lawyers who assert that the move is legal, unlike the minister’s behavior.
It is no secret that the goal of this union is to organize domestic workers under a single union, and to form an organized body that enables the ability to defend the interests of domestic workers in Lebanon. This was declared clearly in the founding conference, which concluded with the formation of the first committee (union) for this aim, and will be followed by the establishment of a second committee for child care workers in nurseries and schools.
Not all the victimized took part in this conference. Hundreds of workers were locked up in the houses of their employers, and hundreds of others were subjected to beatings and rape. Some have not received their salaries for years. A domestic worker will be killed within the few coming days, and her death will be deemed a “suicide.”
While concerns of a confrontation with the authorities limited the foreign workers’ responses, this was not felt by some of the Lebanese founders.
In a speech at the opening ceremony, FENASOL head Castro Abdullah said that the Minister Azzi “is absent today, but his heart is with us.” But Azzi, who declined to give an express statement to Al-Akhbar, announced that his heart is elsewhere.
A senior official in the Ministry of Labor, who requested anonymity, said that “[domestic workers] have no representative status, and what happened yesterday is an illegal act, and the people responsible will be held accountable.”
The senior official explicitly threatened the conference organizers, saying, “We were about to send security forces to prevent the holding of this illegal assembly, but we did not want the issue to take a negative dimension.” Elaborating further, the senior official noted that sending security forces may cause a “stir” considering the participation of delegates from international organizations and diplomatic missions in the conference.
The Ministry of Labor is expected to issue a statement in response to yesterday’s event. The senior official in the Ministry of Labor argued that “only the Lebanese have the right to establish a union, and domestic workers are excluded from the provisions of the labor law, and therefore may not establish a union.”
On the other hand, a former labor minister, who also requested anonymity, told Al-Akhbar that the arguments of the Ministry of Labor were “ethically and legally wrong” since the union is not intended for foreigners but is also aimed at people who engaged in a certain economic activity (workers and domestic workers) irrespective of nationality, including Lebanese who are engaged in this activity.
Lawyer Nizar Saghiyeh confirms that the founders of the union are Lebanese workers, as per the request submitted to the ministry. Also, the exclusion of domestic workers from the labor law means that they are not covered by the provision of the law, including the formation of a union. But does this mean that they are prohibited to form a union? On the contrary, their exclusion from the law indicates that they are not subject to the terms of the establishment of trade unions provided for by the labor law, and it does not mean that they are prohibited from establishing a union and an assembly to defend their rights, since international conventions and treaties give them this right.
Exploiting domestic workers to defang Lebanese labor rights
The violent reaction by the Minister of Labor reflects a firm position to prevent the formation of such a union. Minister Azzi could have acted like any former labor minister in Lebanon, which is to refuse “granting” a license to any union he does not want, instead of starting a public confrontation.
Yet his behavior may be attributed to several reasons: First, the system is not flexible in relation to the formation of unregulated unions. Second, the “recruitment” of foreign workers and their exploitation aims to secure a “surplus of laborers” that can used to domesticate the marginalized labor groups and reduce their wages. Thus, how will the system allow the organization of this surplus under one union after having successfully converted more than a third of the Lebanese workforce into irregular labor?
The equation of subjugation is evident: Hiring a huge number of unskilled foreign labor, which can be easily controlled, and placing them against similar Lebanese labor, which in turn forces workers to accept harsh conditions in the labor market.
The senior official acknowledges that “improving the conditions of these workers is a duty, considering the inhumane treatment, exploitation, and trafficking they are subjected to, but we want to tackle the issue through legal means, not by breaking the law by establishing an illegal union, since unions cause conflict.”
Therefore, this is the main issue: “Avoiding conflict.”
In response to this, the new female unionists stated in their report that “a union is not formed through the law alone, but through its imposition as a reality on the ground, and seeking to acquire legal recognition of it.”
Rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns about the plight of Lebanon's domestic workers for years.
According to a September report by Lebanese rights organization KAFA, migrant domestic workers “are deceived [by the recruitment agencies] about their work and living conditions in Lebanon.” For example, six percent of the migrant domestic workers surveyed said “they were promised different jobs such as security guards, secretaries, hospital or hotel employees, or freelance workers.” While 81 percent of those surveyed were “promised a specific salary,” 53 percent of them received “a lower amount.”
Moreover, “important information is either hidden from workers, or brokers and agents provide them with false or misinformation.” About 84 percent of the surveyed were “not informed about the working hours, 78 percent did not receive any information about weekly days off … 64 percent did not possess any information about the employer’s household … [and] 61 percent did not know whether or not they would be allowed to get in touch with their families.” Shockingly, 82 percent “felt they were forced to work,” and 88 percent said they would not have come to Lebanon “had they fully known the reality.”
About 77 percent of those surveyed worked “at least 14 hours a day and were denied rest periods during the day.” Ninety percent were prohibited from “going out alone,” while 91 percent were “denied the right to a day off.”