Activists call new draft contract for domestic workers ‘an absolute scandal’

The new draft standard labor contract for migrant domestic workers has been described as “an absolute scandal that audaciously violates basic human rights."

Activists call new draft contract for domestic workers ‘an absolute scandal’

Migrant domestic workers protest in Beirut over their work and living conditions in May 2019. (Credit: AFP)

BEIRUT — A new standard labor contract for migrant domestic workers drafted by the Ministry of Labor has angered activists and NGOs, who claim that it would make the situation of the workers, whose rights are determined under the much-maligned ‘kafala’ sponsorship system, even more precarious.

Some of the main issues advocates have cited with the revised Standard Unified Contract for the Employment of Domestic Workers include the lack of terms guaranteeing freedom of movement, the right to breaks and free time, and the ability to end the contract with a one month’s notice without the obligation to compensate the employer for the cost of recruitment.

In a statement published Monday on Legal Agenda’s website, which was signed by 15 labor, human rights groups and other advocacy groups, the new draft contract was described as “an absolute scandal that audaciously violates basic human rights in favor of the vested interests of a handful of ‘traders’ embodied by the recruitment agencies in Lebanon.”

Apart from the issues with the terms of the contract, the advocates said that domestic workers and NGOs committed to protecting their rights were excluded from discussions pertaining to its development, unlike during the drafting of the Standard Unified Contract that was issued by then-caretaker Labor Minister Lamia Yammine in September 2020.

That version of the old unified labor contract, while considered insufficient by rights groups pushing for abolishment of the kafala system, at least granted some basic rights to domestic workers, such as the guarantee to keep her identification papers, the ability to terminate the contract with a month’s notice and being ensured a private, well-ventilated lit room with a lock, to which only the worker would have a key.

The implementation of that draft contract was blocked by the Shura Council, Lebanon’s highest administrative court, following a lawsuit filed by the Syndicate of the Owners of the Worker Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon, which claimed it would disproportionately disadvantage their sector.

There had been no public developments since, and the fate of the new standard labor contract remained in limbo. Then a copy of a new draft law was obtained by Legal Agenda, to the surprise of groups involved in domestic workers’ rights, especially since it became clear that other parties had been consulted in the process. For instance, the National Commission for Lebanese Women was involved in an advisory role, as was the Syndicate of the Owners of the Worker Recruitment Agencies. The International Labor Organization, which was involved in the drafting of the previous contract, was not consulted, Legal Agenda noted.

“The news came as a complete shock because we had no idea it was even worked on by the Ministry of Labor nor by the National Commission for Lebanese Women,” Farah Baba, spokeswoman for the Anti-Racism Movement, told L’Orient Today. “This only reaffirms the fact that the parties involved in drafting this contract do not have the interests of the migrant domestic workers at heart, even though the contract ultimately impacts their lives the most.”

New contract, same old human rights violations?

Surprise quickly turned into anger after Legal Agenda published an elaborate analysis of the amended labor contract, which concluded that the contract would not only not improve the rights of the workers, who are institutionally and in practice at the mercy of the kafala system, but would actually significantly worsen them.

Before Lebanon’s spiraling descent into what the World Bank has dubbed “one of the worst economic crises in modern history,” around 250.000 domestic workers from African and Asian countries were believed to be living in Lebanon. While many have returned home after their employers stopped paying or even unceremoniously discarded of them at their embassies, those who are still employed remain subjected to the “kafala” or sponsorship system which has been likened to modern slavery by human rights groups due to the power imbalance which can easily be exploited by employers.

Some of the main criticisms put forth in Legal Agenda’s analysis, which were echoed in the collective statement that followed it, include the fact that the contract is not mandatory, as its adoption and implementation are left to the discretion of the employer; the eradication of the right to terminate the contract for both parties, which was present in the 2020 version; and the fact that it further violates the right to freedom of movement and privacy of domestic workers, for instance by stipulating that the employer can keep the worker from leaving the house for the first three months of employment. The draft contract also does not guarantee the worker a private room, saying instead that she could be required to share a room with another woman.

The new draft also stripped out some basic benefits that were also included in the older version of 2020 such as a one-hour break after five continuous working hours and the right to at least be paid the national minimum wage. Legal Agenda noted that Joseph Saliba, head of the recruitment agencies’ syndicate, stated that he believed workers' minimum salaries should be based on agreements with their home countries, not on the Lebanese minimum wage since in light of the collapse of the Lebanese lira, the minimum wage of LL675,000 is worth only one fifth of a typical domestic worker's salary.

Additionally, the new contract adds the possibility to transfer the employment contract to the employer’s heirs in the event of the employer’s death, which the advocates’ statement noted “reveals an outright entitled view of ownership towards domestic workers as they are considered an inherited property as any other private property.”

Responding to the criticisms, Denise Dahrouj, head of the international affairs department at the Ministry of Labor, told L’Orient Today that the contract is not yet finalized and that any associations interested in the matter are welcome to request a meeting with the Minister.

“The Minister has not issued an official decision yet, nor has the draft been sent to the State Council in its final form,” she said. “He is committed to safeguarding the rights of all parties involved through constructive dialogue.”

Who benefits from the new standard contract?

Speaking to L'Orient Today, Claudine Aoun, president of the National Commission for Lebanese Women, who has taken on an advisory role in the matter, dismissed the idea that the new draft labor contract would worsen the predicament of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. She noted that attention was paid to ensuring that both parties’ rights, of the domestic worker and the employer, are safeguarded.

“Our recommendations to the Ministry of Labor certainly included measures to ameliorate the conditions of the workers while simultaneously protecting the rights of the employers, most of whom are women,” she said.

While Aoun conceded that the kafala system has “its flaws” when it comes to implementation and that it needs a complete overhaul, she believes that the most crucial step is to severely limit the current role of the recruitment agencies.

“As it is now, they have too many advantages and not enough responsibilities, which leads to exploitation and other forms of malpractice,” Aoun said.

Aoun insisted that NCLW had lobbied to improve the rights of migrant domestic workers.

“In our recommendations to the Ministry [of Labor] we explicitly emphasized the importance of giving workers their own private room, we lobbied for dental care insurance and most importantly, we strongly insist that workers receive appropriate guidance upon their arrival in the form of a brochure that informs them which numbers to call in case of any issues, such as their embassies and [the NGO] Caritas,” she said. “This will greatly reduce malpractices.”

Restricting the role of the recruitment agencies might be one of the few points that Aoun and Baba agree on.

“Some argue that if we abolish kafala, these recruitment agencies will become obsolete and many will lose their jobs,” Baba said. “There are plenty of other jobs which are at least ethical.”

In fact, while she welcomes any step towards reform, such as the contract that was approved by Yammine two years ago, Baba says the ultimate goal of ARM remains to completely abolish the kafala system.

One of the fundamental stumbling blocks on the road to fully dismantling kafala, she said, is that it’s become ingrained in the Lebanese social and political system. “Kafala does not only benefit recruitment agencies … It’s become an entire industry on its own.”

Domestic workers have, in many cases, taken on the role of caregivers for children, the elderly and people with disabilities, in the absence of a social safety provided by the state, which is notoriously absent in these matters.

“As long as this system greatly benefits the public and private sector, we don’t expect any significant changes to it, let alone its abolition. Even if the IMF and the World Bank would tell the government ‘you’ll get your loans if you abolish kafala’, they wouldn’t do it. That’s how deeply entrenched it is,” Baba added.

What’s the alternative?

Any efforts to improve the rights of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, at least on an institutional level, seem Sisyphean. However, Baba says that ARMand other activist groups are actively working on realistic alternative routes to safeguard their interests, emphasizing that these initiatives are being led by the workers themselves.

“One of the main issues with this new contract is that those deciding on it haven’t even asked for the input of those it’s supposed to help,” she said. “In this case, the workers themselves are at the forefront of these initiatives.”

One of the alternative routes they are exploring is the concept of legalizing “freelance” migrant domestic workers. More and more workers have resorted to working under the table for multiple employers rather than risking exploitation or abuse by tying themselves to one employer; however, the kafala system explicitly ties the worker’s legal status to a single employer.

Baba says that ARM has spoken to many employers who also prefer the freelance construct, as it saves them from paying exorbitant fees to recruitment agencies. ARM and other groups are now in the process of further researching how the freelance option could be more widely applied.

“Waiting for any meaningful change on an institutional level is a waste of time in this country,” Baba says. “And not just when it comes to migrant domestic workers’ rights.” 

BEIRUT — A new standard labor contract for migrant domestic workers drafted by the Ministry of Labor has angered activists and NGOs, who claim that it would make the situation of the workers, whose rights are determined under the much-maligned ‘kafala’ sponsorship system, even more precarious.Some of the main issues advocates have cited with the revised Standard Unified Contract for the...