The Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) is a local non-profit, non-partisan Lebanese human rights organization in Beirut that was established by the Franco-Lebanese Movement SOLIDA (Support for Lebanese Detained Arbitrarily) in 2006. SOLIDA has been active since 1996 in the struggle against arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and the impunity of those perpetrating gross human violations.

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July 24, 2015

The Daily Star - New NGO defends families’ treatment of domestic workers, July 24, 2015

Ghinwa Obeid

At a time when more and more voices are being raised against the mistreatment of domestic workers in Lebanon, a new association has been formed to defend Lebanese families against allegations of abuse, while rejecting the notion that the housewife is always guilty.

The entire image of Lebanese families and housewives is being tainted, members of the “Association to Protect Family Privacy and the Worker,” alleged at a news conference this week, arguing that the impression is being given that all domestic workers are being unfairly treated.

“In a way, I feel like I am being offended. ... Why are you putting me in the same category as those that don’t treat workers well?” Maya Geara, a lawyer and founding member, told The Daily Star.

There are approximately 250,000 foreign domestic workers in Lebanon laboring under the country’s notorious Kafala system, which ties their residence permit to a specific employer or sponsor. The system makes workers entirely dependent on their sponsor, and is so rife with abuse that the Philippines, Ethiopia and Nepal have banned their citizens from coming to Lebanon for work.

Many domestic workers are paid very little and work long hours without days off. Confinement, forced labor, nonpayment and physical abuse are commonly reported forms of mistreatment.

Several cases of suicide among domestic workers have been recorded in Lebanon. In 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that on average, one domestic worker dies each week in the country from unnatural causes, including suicide.

Nizar Saghieh, executive director of Legal Agenda and a prominent human rights lawyer, was critical of the association’s approach, particularly as there are minimal protections for such workers under Lebanese law. “We are indeed at fault, against tens of thousands of people,” Saghieh told The Daily Star. “We can’t depend on an employer’s good intentions to improve things; this [is not] utopia.” He said limits to an employer’s actions must be set through legislation.

“The problem isn’t Lebanon’s reputation, [of which] they’re making an issue. In my opinion, Lebanon deserves this reputation ... We must never underestimate the nonexistence of legal protections [for domestic workers].”

But Helen Atala Geara, the association’s head, suggested that there have been systematic “campaigns” by certain organizations to project a negative image of Lebanese families, and blamed the media for blowing the issue out of proportion.

“The problem is that [these campaigns] highlight one face. There are two faces of the coin, and both are right, but why should we always put the spotlight on the worker, when sometimes the housewife is wronged?” she asked.

Maya Geara cast employers as the victims. “We represent the voice of Lebanese women and housewives who feel this unfairness, and are offended [by how] these campaigns are distorting their image.”

Helen Atala Geara claimed a number of campaigns were now making different demands, such as removing the Kafala system. She contended that this is not possible until an alternative is found, and declared, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the current system protects the rights of both worker and sponsor.

“Once done with the Kafala issue, voices come out saying that the [domestic workers] want a union. This [proposed] union is illegal and unrealistic,” Helen Atala Geara said.

A proposal for the creation of a migrant domestic workers’ union was presented to Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi in late December. The minister rejected the proposal and the union remains unrecognized by the government. It has faced significant resistance from the ministry, which considers its formation “illegal.”

“Imagine having a domestic worker that became a union member, and every other day tells you I have a meeting I want to attend ... Is this the worker that we want?” Helen Atala Geara asked.

She contended that with the difficult economic situation some Lebanese families face, housewives are being forced to work. This means that the domestic workers must become “second mothers and housewives.” She said it was necessary to “fix working hours in a way that she would follow the family’s rhythm and not us follow the worker’s pace.”

The mistreatment of domestic workers in Lebanon is long-running issue, and the government has faced enormous criticism from human rights organizations and activists for failing to protect them.

But the founders of Association to Protect Family Privacy and the Worker claimed that domestic workers are being welcomed into households with open hearts, and are well-treated.

“We want to create a balance in the relationship between the housewife and the domestic worker,” Maya Geara said.

“We should state the concerns and worries of [both parties] in order to see things from both perspectives and achieve this balance.”

But Saghieh said he was concerned about the effect the organization could have on the struggle for workers’ rights and efforts to combat mistreatment and abuse.

“What I fear is that this move will be used to cover up exploitation, because there are people saying, ‘We are very nice people and we like them [domestic workers].’”

“The government, of course, is going to use this [type of] speech to cover it up.”

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