Home Economics & Policy An ignored but active union

An ignored but active union

Minister of Labor Sejaan Azzi has yet to allow the union of domestic workers to be registered

by Marie Kostrz

On January 25, 2015, the creation of a union for domestic workers was announced in Beirut. In an atmosphere teeming with excitement, more than 200 women who work in Lebanese homes — including nationals of Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Ethiopia — called for their basic rights to be respected. This union gives rise to huge hopes. “We are going to have more power to negotiate our working and living conditions,” says Rosa, a community leader for Nepalese domestic workers. (Rosa, like several other domestic workers interviewed for this article, requested that only her first name be used.) This determined and cheerful woman who has been in Lebanon for 11 years has a lot to tell about the way domestic workers are treated: she considers herself one of the “lucky ones,” despite the fact that she was locked in her employer’s house throughout her first two years in the country. “My boss was afraid that I would not come back,” she says. “I could only go out with her.”

The media coverage of the creation of the union highlighted the debate that exists around domestic workers’ living and working conditions. Hiring live in migrant housemaids has become a trend in Lebanon since the end of the Civil War. “The ‘demand’ for these workers, to live in [the home] with Lebanese families and perform most of the household duties, had always existed among the middle and upper classes. The difference of the 1990s, however, was the supplanting of Arab domestic workers with non Arab women, mostly from Asia and principally from Sri Lanka and the Philippines,” explains a report published in the European Review of International Migration in 2003 by Ray Jureidini, a professor of sociology who joined the Institute for Migration Studies at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in 2011.

[pullquote]“There isn’t much awareness of issues concerning domestic workers in our society”[/pullquote]

Lack of data

In 2014, according to the Ministry of Labor’s data, 43,284 domestic workers arrived in Lebanon and 155,161 others renewed their contracts. Most of these workers were from Ethiopia and Bangladesh, but other countries in Africa and South Asia also served as a source for the workforce. Yet this total figure of 198,445 domestic workers is not completely accurate: many domestic workers do not have legal status. There are thought to be around 250,000 migrant domestic workers in total, according to various NGOs supporting them that Executive spoke with. “Typically, the source countries are characterized by difficult socio-economic conditions where opportunities for women are limited and where gender roles are traditional. Many are caught between the option of watching one’s family starve and earning money in return for exploitation,” writes Jureidini.

A small number of studies have nonetheless been carried out on the subject by institutes and universities. “It is a very taboo subject in Lebanese society,” explains Kamal Hamdan, head of the Consultation and Research Institute (CRI). “There isn’t much awareness of issues concerning domestic workers in our society, so it is not a very dynamic field of research,” he adds. CRI has conducted a quantitative research study on migrant domestic workers for the International Labor Organization (ILO), which will be released in May 2015. “There is no relevant data about domestic workers in Lebanon, even the figures of the Central Administration of Statistics are not right because [some] households hide the presence of domestic workers at their home from investigators,” according to Hamdan. Researchers, he adds, can’t reach domestic workers easily. “Households often refuse to allow domestic workers to speak [to investigators], or they don’t talk freely, so we have to go to places on the weekend that these workers commonly visit. But in such a context, it is difficult to have a complete overview.” 

CRI interviewed 1,400 women, working mostly in Beirut and its surroundings. “We were surprised to see that sexual violence — often reported in media — isn’t such a widespread phenomenon, even if it does exist,” says Hamdan. The demands of these women, who “often work in infuriating conditions,” mostly concern “work conditions, acquiring vacation and the complicated relationship with the female member of the household.”

The above assessment is similar to the observation made by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a March 2015 news release. “The most common complaints documented by the embassies of labor-sending countries and nongovernmental groups include mistreatment by recruiters, non payment or delayed payment of wages, forced confinement to the workplace, a refusal to provide any time off, forced labor, and verbal and physical abuse,” wrote HRW. Furthermore, according to a report the organization published in 2010, the most common demand is unpaid wages, which 75 percent of Filipinos and 60 percent of Sri Lankans voiced complaints about. According to the report “Trafficking of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon: A Legal Analysis” published by the NGO KAFA in 2011, monthly average incomes are very low. Whereas Sri Lankans are paid $180, Filipinos earn between $200 and $250, and Ethiopians get from $150 to $200. The Ministry of Labor told Executive that it does not have any data on domestic workers’ income.

“Domestic work is a form of work and it contributes to Lebanon’s growth,” says Rose, who has been a domestic worker in Beirut for 17 years and joined the new union. “I enable the wife of the household to go to work, because I do everything in her place: cooking, cleaning and taking care of kids. This is why we are asking for more protection and recognition.” The economic impact of domestic workers on Lebanese society has never been calculated in any report. Nonetheless, a study led by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago published in 2012 underlines the link between better treatment of domestic workers and public good. Despite the different cultural and economic contexts, domestic workers in the United States face similar issues to those working in Lebanon, among them working hours, average wage and treatment. The exclusion of domestic workers from the United States’ 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act and the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which gives workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively, places them in a situation similar to domestic workers in Lebanon in some respects. According to the report, improving the work and living conditions of domestic workers would be beneficial for society: “Domestic work, though conducted in private homes, contributes substantially to the public good. Household labor is a lynchpin connecting the economics of the home and the economics of the workplace. By committing to improving domestic workers’ conditions of work, policy makers and employers — and indeed society as a whole — commit to building an economy based on dignity and care.”

[pullquote]With the kafala system, the domestic worker is indeed entirely dependent on her employer[/pullquote]

Vulnerability and dependence 

All reports agree that domestic workers are vulnerable to exploitation. “Although they may be voluntary economic migrants, they are often caught up in employment conditions that are mostly slavery like arrangements,” Jureidini says. With the kafala system existing in Lebanon, the domestic worker is indeed entirely dependent on her employer. This sponsorship system binds the worker’s residency exclusively to the employer, who is legally responsible for the employee. The employer has to pay $200 to obtain a residency permit for the worker from General Security and $160 for their work permit at the Ministry of Labor, according to the ministry. If the domestic worker leaves the employer’s home, for whatever reason, the worker becomes illegal. This arrangement is not written in the Lebanese law but belongs to a system of practices. “A decree published in 1964 says that a foreign worker cannot change their type of work without having the employer’s authorization; it has been interpreted to mean that the employer’s authorization is needed for change of employer too,” says Nizar Saghieh from The Legal Agenda, a NGO specializing in legal activism and reform. 

In such a context, which automatically places the employee in a situation of inferiority, workers have few choices but to accept the decisions of the employer. This is something that Clarence, a Madagascan domestic worker who has been working in Lebanon for 18 years, knows all too well. She still can’t have a day off every week: “According to the contract that I signed, I am supposed to have 24 consecutive hours off every week but my employer often invites friends for lunch on Sundays so I never have a whole day to rest,” she says, adding that for 14 years she did not receive as much money as the contract stipulated: “I was paid $110 instead of $125; my boss kept saying that she did not agree on this amount with the recruitment agency.” 

Recruitment agencies, a big business

The number of recruitment agencies has skyrocketed. According to Minister of Labor Sejaan Azzi, there are 627 such agencies spread all over the country. Amid the boom in domestic worker agencies, the president of the Syndicate of the Owners of the Workers Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon, Hicham Al Borji, told Executive that there are 200 illegal agencies in the country.

These recruitment agencies, contacted by Lebanese families, are in charge of finding a maid for their clients. In countries of origin, the recruitment process involves local intermediaries who arrange the trip with the recruitment agencies in Lebanon. Most of them are not transparent about the work and living conditions the women will have once they arrive in Lebanon. This economy is lucrative, especially when the employee is from a country which has banned its citizens from working in Lebanon as house workers because of the risks of bad treatment. “Families pay us around $4,000 for a Filipino maid and $1,700 for an Ethiopian one,” Borji says. “Bans issued by these countries have made prices increase; intermediaries want more money.” According to KAFA’s report quoted earlier, recruitment agencies pocket commissions going from $300 to $600, depending on the maid’s nationality. The large discrepancy between KAFA’s figures and those provided by Borji show just how expensive intermediary fees can be. No figures on wages were provided by the Ministry of Labor when requested by Executive.

There is no exhaustive regulation of recruitment agencies in Lebanon. The order issued by the Ministry of Labor on January 3, 2011 on the activity of agencies recruiting foreign workers is the only text that defines rules for private recruitment companies hiring domestic workers. “With a total of only 20 inspectors to cover all of Lebanon, it is hard to plan a control of information or field audits, which gives private recruitment companies an important decision-making power on the migrant domestic workers’ fate,” says the report “Access to Justice for Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon” published by the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center (CLMC) and ILO. Azzi assures Executive that he has closed 35 recruitment agencies for bad practices since he became minister in February 2014.


The lack of legislation is not just limited to recruitment agencies. Domestic workers also suffer from a vast legal void. “Article 7 of the labor code excludes domestic workers,” says Abdel-Salam Cheaib, an attorney specialized in labor law. “They are only under the code of contract and obligations, it does not protect them as much as the labor code because there isn’t any mandatory article on income, working hours or against abusive dismissal.” 

“We need to have protection,” says Gemma Justo. This Filipino woman, who has been a domestic worker in Lebanon for 22 years, is part of the executive committee of the new union. “The law needs to be changed,” she adds. The union is demanding that Lebanon ratify ILO Convention No. 189 on Domestic Workers, which was signed in 2011 and sets labor standards for them.

[pullquote]“At the end they found out that they face the same issues irrespective of their nationality”[/pullquote]

Although announced with great pomp in January 2015, the union isn’t something new. It is the result of a long process that started in 2011 with the launch of the Action Program for Protecting the Rights of Women Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon (PROWD). In 2012, the Participative Action Research (PAR) was a step towards the union. “We invited the community leaders of the various nationalities of domestic workers who are present in Lebanon and built their capacity to mobilize participants to take part in the research and to facilitate the focus,” says Zeina Mezher, who was the manager of the PROWD project at ILO. “Every group shared its experience about their relationships with employers, the work and living conditions, recruitment and so on. At the end they found out that they face the same issues irrespective of their nationality.” PAR was led in collaboration with the National Federation of Employees and Workers Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL). Selected NGOs such as KAFA, Insan and the Anti-Racism Movement also took part in the process. “The objective of the research was to raise worker consciousness among women domestic migrant workers in Lebanon, building synergies between them, unions and NGOs; provide worker education to these workers; and increase their representation in the activities of the ILO and in the advocacy campaigns of NGOs and unions in Lebanon,” adds Mezher. The need to help create a union for domestic workers was something evident for ILO. “The work of ILO is to support workers and employers to have a voice for the matters which affect them, in order to have a structure for a tripartite dialogue,” explains Mezher. “In Lebanon, migrant domestic workers are in very vulnerable positions and their voice is completely absent.” In March 2014, the founding committee of the union was announced in the presence of Mounir Al Deek, an adviser at the Ministry of Labor, during an event co-organized by FENASOL and ILO. “Another layer of activity started after this date. The ILO provided capacity building training sessions empowering the members to act in solidarity and organize themselves and FENASOL brought its experience,” she explains. 

While the union has elected a president, Mariam al-Masri, and has an executive committee composed of 12 members and a general assembly with 20, it is still not registered by the Ministry of Labor. According to the Lebanese Labor Code, the registration of any union has to be approved by the minister. “We sent a request to register it,” says Castro Abdallah, head of FENASOL. A side of the story that the Minister of Labor Sejaan Azzi refutes. “No request has been filed. They just invited me to their party on January 25.” Yet, Executive has consulted the request written and sent by FENASOL to register the domestic workers union. According to the ministry’s stamp, it had been recorded on December 29, 2014. At the Ministry of Labor, the head of the control of foreign workers’ labor department Marlène Atallah said the request had been rejected. “We never had any answer as to why. If he does not agree, he should tell us frankly,” says Abdallah. 

This complex situation conveys Azzi’s opposition to the idea of a union for domestic workers. “The issue of domestic workers does not have to be solved by a union. They work with families which is a private issue. Imagine that you are with your boyfriend at home and an inspector rings your bell; we are not in a bank,” says Azzi. At ILO, Mezher hopes that the Ministry of Labor will come to see the union as an additional tool to get fair legislation that respects the rights of employers and workers.

To justify his opposition, Azzi invokes Lebanese law: “Foreigners are forbidden to create a union in Lebanon.” Indeed, in addition to article 7, article 92 of the labor code allows foreigners to join a union, but denies them the right to elect or be elected as representatives of a union. A law which the domestic workers’ union tries to circumvent. The president of the union is indeed Lebanese. Moreover, the union request which has been sent to the Ministry of Labor does not concern foreign workers only, as evidenced by its name: the General Union of Cleaning Workers and Social Care. However, other texts, higher according to the hierarchy of laws than the labor code, exist in Lebanon. “A commitment to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was integrated into the Lebanese constitution in 1990. Since the declaration stipulates everyone’s right to form and join trade unions, it is a right for any person on the Lebanese land,” lawyer Cheaib explains. “FENASOL could go to the State Council to break the minister’s refusal.”

[pullquote]“The more we are, the stronger we will be to gain more rights”[/pullquote]

Efficient without being legal?

“Even if we are not registered, the union is real. We will not give up,” shouts Rose, a member of the union and leader of the Cameroonian expatriate community. Without being registered, can the union be efficient in improving domestic workers’ rights? “We have around 350 domestic workers who are members of the union. Our aim is to have 700 members by the end of 2015,” declared Justo in a meeting on the occasion of International Women’s Day on March 8. “The more we are, the stronger we will be to gain more rights.” 

The union’s role is also to support workers. “In its current state, the union can empower members, educating them about their rights and providing conflict resolution tools in order for them to have more skills to solve the issues they have with their employers,” says the ILO’s Mezher. “We will soon start organizing trips around Lebanon to meet women who work in houses outside of Beirut,” says Rose. “It will take time, but we’ll do it step by step.” According to FENASOL’s Abdallah, the union already has seven lawyers who are providing legal support to members who have troubles with their employers. However, the biggest challenge seems to be money. “They help the union on a voluntary basis to advise domestic workers, but the union doesn’t have a real budget to expand its activities,” says Abdallah, noting that the union applied for EU grants to cover its expenses.

A devastated union landscape

Another question raised is whether unions have enough power to actually change things in Lebanon. “The union movement in Lebanon is very weak,” says Samir Farah, researcher at the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Beirut. “After the Civil War, ministers of labor gave lots of permissions to people to create unions. This strategy was aimed at strengthening allies of Syria who had a large control over Lebanon until 2005, it destroyed the union movement.” According to Farah, the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (GCLW) gathers more than 600 unions, but is not representative of workers: “Only 7.5 percent of workers are members of unions, the leaders have been the same for decades, the democratic process does not work in these unions and they are not very active in fighting for people’s rights.” Unions today are more a tool of control for political parties. “They are more a way for them to establish their authority and put pressure on the legal system. For instance, a political party will bargain the vote of a law against the promise that a union that is affiliated to it will give up its demands,” says Michele Scala, PhD student at the Institut Français du Proche-Orient (IFPO) and author of the article “Clientelism and contestation: The example of the mobilization of Spinney’s workers in Lebanon”. 

In such a context, being an independent union is very hard. “The Minister of Labor has a two month period from the date he receives the request to approve or reject the union. During this time everything is done to discourage the workers. In the case of Spinneys, workers experienced transfers, threats and various sorts of pressure in order to [push] them to withdraw from the union,” says Scala — a situation close to that of the domestic workers’ union. While no threats have been reported, FENASOL, which fosters the new union, is known to be a quite independent union, with an effective democratic process. “[FENASOL head] Castro Abdallah is the only leader who is trying to change the status of the union in order to not be reelected [through limiting leadership terms],” Scala says. Without having any political support, it will be hard to be heard by the government. Even if their struggle is made harder by the Lebanese context, Scala thinks it is a positive trend to observe the creation of new unions outside of the GCLW’s influence. “It can be the emergence of a new union movement in Lebanon.”

Cheaib is more skeptical. “The 1946 and 1964 laws give some rights to union members, like the right to strike for 15 days, negotiation and protection against dismissal for representatives, but there is nothing in the Lebanese law which forces the government to initiate a dialogue with the unions,” the lawyer says. “In practice, it is much harder to gain rights for workers.”

[pullquote]“Politicians always say they have more important issues to solve and then the government resigns and we have to start again”[/pullquote]

Changing the law

According to Cheaib, changing the law is the only solution to improve domestic workers’ rights. At the Ministry of Labor, Atallah explains that initiatives are taken to protect the rights of domestic workers. “Social workers who have to deal with complaints of domestic workers are trained,” she says. “We also are working on memoranda of understanding between Lebanon and Ethiopia, the Philippines and Madagascar, where there are currently bans [against workers coming to Lebanon]. It will define a mandatory minimum income for workers of these countries coming to Lebanon.”

According to Joseph Aoun, lawyer at the CLMC, a law dedicated to the regulation of domestic work would be a great tool to move forward. The CLMC — which brings together several NGOs, representatives of various ministries, General Security and the Syndicate of the Owners of the Workers Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon — is part of the steering committee that worked on the draft law presented by then Minister of Labor Boutros Harb in 2012. The law was sent to the Council of Ministers but has never been referred to the Parliament. “Because of instability and lack of safety, politicians always say they have more important issues to solve and then the government resigns and we have to start again,” Aoun notes. Instability and political deadlock is not the only reason improvements have yet to be made. In 2011, then Minister of Labor Charbel Nahas tried to remove Article 7 and suggested a process aiming at canceling the kafala system. “A ministerial decree had to be voted on by the Council of Ministers, but they always refused to put it on the agenda in order to vote on it,” he says.

In December 2014, a new draft law inspired by the 2012 one was sent to the Council of Ministers by Azzi, without any consultation from the steering committee. Azzi summoned the committee to meet for the first time since he became Minister of Labor in February 2015, a few weeks after the announcement of the union. This draft law does not cancel the kafala system. The ministry is now passing the buck to NGOs which, according to Atallah, “have to do their work of lobbying in order for Parliament to vote on the law.” 

For the union, as for the law, domestic workers have still a long way before getting decent protection of their rights. But their members have not given up. In 2013 in South Africa, where domestic workers are also excluded from the labor law too, the national domestic workers union succeeded in getting the enforcement of the 2011 ILO Convention No. 189. An example that gives much hope to workers in Lebanon.

Editor’s note: As a direct result of the author’s interview with Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi, the ministry opened an inquiry into the labor practices of NewsMedia sal, Executive’s publisher.

Support our fight for economic liberty &
the freedom of the entrepreneurial mind

Marie Kostrz


View all posts by

You may also like