A new work contract allowing foreign domestic workers to resign while keeping their passport has brought Lebanon a step closer to the end of the exploitative kafala system, but campaigners have been wary of undue celebration.
The revised legal document, approved yesterday by the labor ministry in Beirut, replaces a 2009 version and makes several much-needed improvements to migrant workers’ rights.
Until now, foreign domestic workers were unable to resign or change employers without becoming undocumented, a major contributing factor to the rampant exploitation the group faces in the country.
In addition to giving them this ability, the contract states that workers now have the right to the national minimum wage and an eight-hour work day, along with daily rest, paid vacation time, and sick leave.
Employers are now also required to provide a private, well-ventilated room, something foreign domestic workers—many of whom sleep in living rooms or on balconies—are often not afforded.
Lamia Yammine, the outgoing labor minister, lauded the new contract and said it “abolishes the kafala system.”
But campaigners have warned that while the document is a welcome and necessary step, it is only a start, and there is considerable work still to be done to eliminate the kafala system.
Enforcement even of the current, insufficient law is scant, and experts have warned that without inspections and accountability mechanisms little is likely to change.
The New Arab reports:
“It is no doubt a much better version than the older one,” said Amnesty International researcher Diala Haidar. But “a contract alone doesn’t end kafala.”
“In the absence of an enforcement mechanism, this contract will remain ink on paper,” Haidar said.
The old contract, for example, states the worker must receive their wages at the end of the month, but this had not stopped some from kicking out workers without pay.
“We haven’t seen any employers held to account for this breach of the contract,” she said.
The road ahead is “still complicated,” according to Zeina Meher of the International Labour Organization (ILO), noting that it still was not guaranteed that a worker could keep their residency permit upon resigning.
Others have called for additional amendments to the law that would protect all domestic workers, both Lebanese and foreign, and allow them to form unions.
Many foreign domestic workers in Lebanon are currently in dire straits, particularly in Beirut, where the combination of economic crisis, a global pandemic, and last month’s port explosion have left some struggling to survive.
The desperate circumstances have reignited calls for urgent reform to the exploitative kafala sponsorship system, which has ensured that these workers remain unprotected from these crises.
Kafala has been widely described as a form of modern slavery and has facilitated a wide range of abuses, both in Lebanon and around the world where sponsorship systems are in place.
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