Lebanon could become the first Arab state to allow migrant domestic workers into a labor union if the country’s labor ministry approves a proposal submitted by the National Federation of Labor Unions.
The ministry announced on Monday that it had received the proposal, and that it was studying whether Lebanese labor law protects the right of migrant domestic workers to be in a union.
An estimated 200,000 migrant laborers are employed as domestic workers in Lebanon, according to a May 2014 report by the human rights group Anti-Slavery. Those workers, many of whom are Nepalese, are routinely subject to abusive practices that range from “non-payment of wages and no time off to forced and bonded labor and servitude,” according to the report. Of the employers surveyed by Anti-Slavery, fewer than 20 percent allowed their domestic workers to take a day off and leave the house.
The domestic workers seeking union recognition want to force a change to the kafala system, a labor law regime employed throughout much of the Arab world.
Under the kafala system, migrant laborers require a sponsor to remain in the country, typically their employer. The arrangement leaves migrant workers almost wholly dependent on their employers because if they try to leave their jobs, they lose their legal status. Millions of migrant workers across the Middle East are employed under the kafala system and similar laws.
“The kafala system constitutes an asymmetrical relationship between employer and employee,” according to the Anti-Slavery report. “It leaves room for many rights violations, such as confinement to the house, no time to rest, no day off, no right to quit, non-payment of salaries, physical and sexual abuse, etc."
Domestic workers in Lebanon sometimes take desperate measures to break free from their employers. In November 2014, an Ethiopian maid leapt to her death from her employer’s balcony. Less than one month later, a Kenyan woman was seriously injured during an escape attempt from her employer’s third-floor apartment.
In the face of widespread outcry over the system, Bahrain claimed in 2009 it would repeal kafala rules. However, the Bahraini government’s subsequent reforms were cosmetic at best according to the nonprofit Migrant Rights.
A 2014 report from the Human Rights Watch noted that some Lebanese government officials had gestured at the possibility of reforming kafala, but the impact of those reforms has thus far been “limited."
Sheila Bapat, author of "Part of the Family?: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers' Rights," told Al Jazeera in an email, “Regardless of the system, when employers control domestic workers’ papers and legal status, workers have no independence of their own. These types of systems breed exploitation."