Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon have been pushing to form the first labor union in the Arab world after being subjected to beatings and rape.
Rights groups have frequently accused Lebanon and various Gulf States of racist and degrading treatment of migrant domestic workers who are often referred to as "servants.”
Though public awareness regarding the plight of migrant workers has increased in recent years, activists say there are no mechanisms in place to protect women when they are mistreated or when contracts are breached.
Rahel Zegeye moved to Lebanon from Ethiopia more than a decade ago and is one of more than 200,000 migrant domestic workers for whom a life of exploitation and abuse on the peripheries of society is all too common.
“For 12 years I was tired, and I felt alone, and there was no change,” said Rahel Zegeye. “But now, with the union, people are listening.”
The workers are operating under the umbrella of the National Federation of Labor Unions [FENASOL] and with the support of the International Labour Organization [ILO].
Though the union was deemed illegal by the Ministry of Labor, it has been three years in the making, refusing to be silenced. It is now attracting a surge of new interest from potential members since its public launch last month, with Lebanese domestic workers also able to join.
Like others in the union, Rahel’s hopes remain undiminished, as do the efforts to reach those not allowed out of the house to participate in the movement.
“It’s important to bring migrant workers together,” she said. “The union offers them power. Whether they are sick or if there is something else wrong, there is no help for a lot of migrants.”
The need for migrant workers to have greater representation in Lebanon is well documented.
While Rahel is treated well by her current employer, many others are not. In 2008, Human Rights Watch estimated that within the country there was an average of one migrant domestic worker death per week from unnatural causes, including suicide, and has called for the government to address the "high levels of abuse and deaths.”
Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, most of whom are women, work under the ‘Kafala’ system, which is used elsewhere in the Middle East and binds their residency to their ‘sponsor’ -- normally their employers, who often keep their employee’s passports and work papers.
A study of employers by human rights groups Anti Slavery International and its partner KAFA found 88 percent of employers of migrant domestic workers surveyed agreed the employer had the right to keep a worker's passport “in order to prevent her from escaping.”
Having originally moved to Lebanon from Sri Lanka seeking a better life, 34-year-old Aishani last year fled the family for whom she had worked for over a decade. She is now staying in a Caritas shelter for migrant workers.
She told VOA her employer attacked her when she refused to work, which she said was in response to not having been paid for more than two years. “He said he wanted to see me bleed. He stood on my neck. If I had died in that house no one would have known.”
An investigation has been launched into the claims. But now, having previously been denied the right to return for her mother’s funeral by her employer, her main hope is to return home to Sri Lanka.
“Domestic workers are human,” she said. “They must not be treated like an animal. Let them come, and let them work in peace.”
Change comes slowly
Rahel explained that the past few years have resulted in more opportunities for domestic migrant workers to have lives beyond the confines of their sponsor’s home.
“Slowly, slowly, it has begun to change, but I will continue to ask again and again,” she said.
Those workers allowed out, most commonly on a Sunday, will often gather with their respective national communities. The role of religion among the communities often means that local churches provide the space for them to come together and worship.
New organizations dedicated to helping workers, and new places in which support and education are on offer recently have been opening. Ramy Shukr is a coordinator at the Migrant Community Center in Beirut, one many places that has opened in recent years to offer migrants a space to meet and learn new skills such as English and computer skills.
Ramy described the community center as “a space where migrant workers can network and organize.”
“It is not about us speaking on their behalf,” he said. “It is about them defending their own rights rather than being treated as victims all the time. They have the power to speak and that is what they are trying to achieve.”
Legal avenues opening
There are signs that those in power within Lebanon are beginning to take note of the plight of the migrants.
In 2009, a standard contract for migrant workers was created by the government. Though it is written in Arabic, making it impossible to read for many workers, and for failing to address issues such as the confiscation of passports, it has been seen as a significant step. And despite his opposition to the union, Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi has acknowledged migrant workers’ rights are not properly protected.
Azzi’s office also has submitted a draft labor bill that follows ILO guidelines for domestic workers’ rights, though a similar bill previously failed to make it into legislation.
The judiciary also appears to be responding. Last summer a Filipino migrant worker successfully sued her employer to regain her passport in what was seen as a landmark decision for workers in Lebanon.
Noha Roukoss is responsible for training and awareness at the Lebanon Migrant Centre run by development organization Caritas, which is part of the government’s steering group and has also launched a task force to look at victims of human trafficking, a common feature among domestic workers.
“When you go to the courts to talk about a migrant domestic worker rights before, judges would be on the side of the Lebanese,” she told VOA. “Now they are looking at who is in the right.”