Lebanon – Migrant Workers Exploited, Steps Towards a Better Life?

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(The Daily Star, October 21, 2010)

Basic steps to improve the situation of Lebanon’s hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, at risk from abuse and exploitation, were taken by the syndicate of recruitment agencies Wednesday.

The Syndicate of the Owners of the Workers Recruitment Agencies has now entered into a formal agreement with Lebanese NGO Caritas, promising to better inform their employees of their rights, increase their access to social services and to blacklist employers who are known to have been abusive, preventing them from repeating their offenses.

It is hoped that the coordination, alongside legal reforms currently under review by the Labor Ministry and the Interior Ministry, could alleviate some of the worst human-rights abuses and help migrants secure a basic level of protection.

“Improving rights for migrants is, in fact, one of the most important goals of our syndicate,” said syndicate representative Hicham al-Bourji. “We are fully aware of the necessity of this matter and the need for it in our society.”

The agencies have also vowed to work more closely with migrants’ home countries to help them inform their citizens of the reality they will face once in Lebanon, and to help them, should abuses occur.

Most migrants work as domestic helpers but living inside their employer’s homes leaves them especially vulnerable to exploitation. Many reportedly suffer from physical and even sexual abuse but are unable to report the mistreatment. They can also be incarcerated inside the home, denied wages or access to medical attention, and forced to work for very long hours in tough conditions, with no rest.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch estimated that conditions are so deplorable that around one suicide, or accidental death from women trying to escape the home, happens in the country almost every week.

Consequently, some foreign countries have taken the drastic step of banning their nationals from working in certain fields.

The ban, however, is only addressing the symptoms and is not helping to address the root causes, said Bourji.

“While we fully understand the reasons why [countries have] enforced the ban … [It is] being used as an excuse to minimize embassy protection and petition for change,” he said.

Embassy representatives – including the Sri Lankan ambassador – present at the memorandum signing expressed support for the latest developments, pledging to step up cooperation with the syndicates while simultaneously remaining skeptical that the latest developments will radically improve the situation.

The ability of agencies to firstly detect and then intervene in cases of abuse remains low. Not all agencies are represented by the syndicate, and many operate illegally in contradiction of legislation, such as those which do not provide translators.

“Our sector is divided into two parts: a part that abides by the human rules and regularizations originally connected without any exaggeration, and a smaller part that doesn’t abide by the rules and neglects the simplest human laws,” said Bourji.

Without direct inspections and more stringent government interference, however, there is little that can be done about them, and offending agencies will continue operating in spite of the recent moves.

“Migrant workers, especially those that are employed in the home, remain for us a subject of great concern,” said European Commission (EC) representative Diego Escala Paturel. “Lots of people exploit their vulnerability, making them work for more than 10 hours, without a moment’s rest, such actions which remain unacceptable.”

The EC is supporting the new moves and has previously assisted Caritas by funding various projects including the Caritas Migrant Center, providing basic services to those suffering from abuse, post traumatic stress and other phobias. Moves by other NGOs have also helped improve the situation and migrants are slowly becoming more aware of their rights, while a hotline has also been set up to report abuses. “But we must not rest on our laurels – there is a lot more left to do,” said Paturel.

The EC continues to urge Lebanon to adopt the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families and the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which would help migrants seeking asylum.

Read Matthew Cassel’s article, Unseen Lives