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UN urges Lebanon to Protect Domestic Workers

On October 20, 2011

The UN's Special Rapporteur on modern day slavery is urging Lebanon to address the plight of its domestic workers. Gulnara Shahinian recounted conditions of the migrants she met in Lebanon; sexual abuse, contract violations, unfair hours, and domestic servitude regularly punctuated their experiences. She recognized the measures Lebanon has taken - including establishing a hotline and committee to manage migrant issues - but advised much more direct and responsive legislation to curb migrant mistreatment. Shahinian classified migrants' legal status as essentially "invisible," unprotected from the reaches of law. The absence of meaningful employment standards, regulation, or enforcement practices subjects domestic workers to economic, psychological and physical abuse.

Shahinian is the first independent UN expert to evaluate government responsiveness to contemporary slavery in Lebanon. But she is not the first to admonish Lebanese oversight failures; HRW documented cases of abuse in a report last year. They found that the regulatory system was ineffective and failed to reprehend or punish employers who abused their workers. This judicial void where migrants are concerned limits the ability to redress exploitation and further normalizes abuse into society. (Click here to see the full report).

But a coherent, robust rule of law needs to be created before it can be enforced. A bill that would reinvigorate migrant law has dawdled in the legislature for over three years. With, on average, at least one domestic worker dying every week in Lebanon (due to work-related dangers, employer abuse, and suicide), the government's lackadaisical attitude directly endangers migrant well-being.

Shahinian advised the Lebanese government to implement legislation that would ensure all sides act fairly; this would include regulations for employers and recruitment agencies, as well as guarantees for migrants such as "freedom of movement," and modification of the visa/sponsorship laws that foster conditions leading to domestic servitude. Shahinian emphasized that there are benefits to both parties; the over 200,000 domestic workers themselves would feel secure, and in return for ensuring a positive, safe environment, Lebanon wold continue to attract the work force that it so heavily depends upon. Read more about Shahinian's experiences and proposals here and here.

Shahinian hopes her reports, backed by the weight of the UN, will encourage Lebanon to reposition its stance towards migrant conditions promptly and assertively.