Beirut – Tucked in a cul de sac in the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood of the Lebanese capital Beirut, the Migrant Community Centre draws little outward attention.
But inside, walls are plastered with fliers about upcoming educational events for migrant workers, and “Know Your Rights” pamphlets are liberally displayed. Recently, the centre has become a meeting space for the Domestic Workers Union, a fledgling organisation that is the first of its kind in the Middle East.
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Founded in January, the union – intended as a voice for Lebanon’s approximately 250,000 migrant domestic workers, who comprise about five percent of the country’s population – made its first public appearance in early May, with a march in downtown Beirut to commemorate International Labour Day. Members used the event to call upon Lebanon’s labour ministry to formally recognise the union.
“We are banding together to have a political voice,” Christina, a young domestic worker from the Philippines, told hundreds of domestic workers assembled at the march. “We are workers, not slaves.”
The Domestic Workers Union has a number of demands, including a minimum wage and a maximum number of work hours per week. The union is also calling for an end to the kafala system, under which employers can prevent workers from changing jobs or leaving the country.
“Establishing a union, you have a more powerful voice and the ability to demand your rights in a more protected way,” Rana Boukarim, an organiser with the Migrant Community Centre, told Al Jazeera. “The union members are some of the most active domestic workers in Beirut.”
on the solidarity that they get from other unions and civil society at large.”]
Although Lebanese labour law prohibits foreign workers from electing or being elected as union representatives, the Domestic Workers Union has circumvented these restrictions. While its membership is largely Ethiopian, Sri Lankan, Filipina, Nepali, Bangladeshi, and Kenyan, president Mariam al-Masri is Lebanese.
The union is organised under the National Federation of Employees and Workers in Lebanon (FENASOL), and its official name, as submitted to the labour ministry, is the General Union of Cleaning Workers and Social Care. The union is designed to advocate on behalf of all domestic workers, foreign or Lebanese.
“We put the union of migrant workers under a general union … to ensure it was legal,” FENASOL representative Farah Abdullah told Al Jazeera.
But the labour ministry has still not formally recognised the union. Lebanese Labour Minister Sejaan Azzi threatened to have security forces disrupt the union’s founding congress, and in a statement to the media shortly after the congress, he deemed the union “illegal”.
“Advanced laws would solve the problem that the migrant worker sector is suffering from, not the formation of groups under the guise of a syndicate,” the statement noted.
He was referring to ILO Convention No 189, an international treaty for the protection of domestic workers, that, if implemented, would codify basic protections for domestic workers into Lebanese law. Lebanon voted in favour of the convention in 2011, but the year-long lack of presidential leadership in Lebanon has stalled parliament, keeping it from being ratified.
The labour ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the matter.
Joseph Saliba, the vice president of SORAL, a union representing domestic worker recruitment agencies in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera that while the kafala system is flawed, it is unrealistic to demand its end without suggesting an alternative. The Kuwait Trade Union Federation, for example, has suggested an alternative that would make the state the sole sponsor, facilitating recruitment.
“Lebanese people need domestic workers,” Saliba noted. “There are poor people sitting in their homes, jobless, and we can improve their lives while they improve their economy.”
On average, domestic workers earn $200 a month in Lebanon, according to estimates from NGOs. Still, the economies of some countries that provide domestic labour depend on the remittances that migrant workers send home. While these governments are aware of the abuses that their citizens face while working abroad, their own economic survival depends on the system.
We are holding events, and recruiting more and more people with each one. We are only going to grow from here.
Although reforms have been proposed – most recently in Qatar, where the use of migrant labour to construct the 2022 World Cup Stadium has received international attention and condemnation – there is no timetable for implementation. In Bahrain, a reform transferring the sponsorship of migrant workers from employers to the Ministry of Labour was passed, but then scaled back to apply only to workers who had worked with a sponsor for a minimum of one year, and not at all to domestic workers. And while Kuwait promised to abolish the kafala system in 2011, this was scaled back to a series of reforms that have yet to be implemented and have been criticised by Human Rights Watch as a public relations stunt.
“[Lebanon’s] union for domestic workers is paving the way for organising other workers that have been excluded from the model for formal organising,” Farah Kobaissi, a researcher from the American University of Cairo specialising in gender, labour and migration, told Al Jazeera. “The degree to which they succeed will depend on the extent to which they build and enlarge the membership base of the union and safeguard a democratic relation in that base. It also depends on the solidarity that they get from other unions and civil society at large.”
Meanwhile, the Domestic Workers Union is continuing to recruit members to organise events, educate domestic workers on their rights, and provide assistance for those in abusive situations.
“We have been working on this union for three years,” Nidal, a domestic worker from Bangladesh, told Al Jazeera. “We are holding events, and recruiting more and more people with each one. We are only going to grow from here.”