“I left Sri Lanka when I was 24, to support my parents. On reaching Lebanon, I found myself working non-stop from 5am until two in the morning. It was slavery. There was no one to help us back then, but now we have hope.”
Sosina is now 44 years old and has, for a number of years, been defending the cause of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, through the Federation of Employees’ and Workers’ Trade Unions of Lebanon (FENASOL).
“When there are disputes between the women and their employers, FENASOL tries to find an amicable solution, to avoid the courts, where they risk deportation,” she explains.
Despite being completely overworked, Sosina is a happy woman. On 25 January, she was one of over 200 domestic workers from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Nepal and Bangladesh, amongst other countries, who attended the founding congress of the Domestic Workers’ Union of Lebanon.
The congress took place near the FENASOL offices in Beirut in the presence of representatives from the EU, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF) and the Arab Trade Union Confederation (ATUC).
There are more than 250,000 migrant domestic workers in the ‘land of the cedars’, according to the ILO, where they are unprotected by labour laws and many are subject to a range of abuses by their employers, including delayed or non-payment of wages, inadequate food, shelter or time-off and physical and sexual violence.
Also because of the kafala sponsorship system, which binds workers to a single employer, workers are subject to conditions akin to forced labour, according to workers’ rights advocates.
At the launch, domestic worker after domestic worker lined up to testify about their appalling working conditions.
“I only earn US$50 a month,” said one of the attendees. “Madame only gives me one meal a day. But I’m not afraid anymore!”
“Help us, because we are tired of being mistreated, underpaid, and undernourished,” said another domestic worker.
“If we complain, they send us to the General Security Directorate [Lebanon’s security and intelligence agency] and we risk being deported. But we have come here because there is no solution in our countries.”
“You see, it’s because of all these stories that we want to set up a union,” says the chair of the meeting, Rose, from Cameroon, to thunderous applause.
Towards the end of the day, 12 people are elected to sit on the executive of the new trade union committee, which will be part of a union representing similar trades, such as cleaning technicians. Rose is of them.
“I am anxious and happy. Happy because I have heard too many abominable stories to sit back and do nothing. At the same time, the Labour Ministry hasn’t yet given its verdict on our union. But we are not waiting for them, we’re moving forward,” said Rose.
The Domestic Workers’ Union has infact encountered great hostility from the Lebanese Ministry of Labour, which has declared the union “illegal”.
“Lebanese law forbids foreigners from forming unions,” says Labour Minister Sejaan Azzi. As stated in Article 7 of the Labour Code: “Domestic workers employed in private homes are excluded from the present law.”
So it is the kafala system that prevails.
Domestic workers are recruited by labour brokers in their home countries with false promises of good wages and decent working conditions.
Upon reaching Lebanon, these recruitment agencies place them in the hands of an employer who has total control over their lives. Examples of unpaid wages, physical assault, rape and exploitation are rife amongst domestic workers in Lebanon, as are the denunciations made by national and international NGOs.
Yet, according to Sarah Wansa, a researcher at the Lebanese NGO Legal Agenda, the law does not explicitly support the kafala system.
“The term kafil or sponsor, from which the kafala system derives, does not appear in any legal text in Lebanon. It is a custom that, over the years, has gathered the strength of a de facto law.”
The labour law, on the other hand, was supposed to have been revised years ago.
The general secretary of FENASOL, Castro Abdallah, argues that: “The Labour Minister looks in his law book and says this union is forbidden. But this book, it is not the Bible or the Koran.
"There is Convention 87 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which states that all workers and employees, without distinction or restriction, have the right to form or join a union.”
The Lebanese parliament still has to ratify this text, as well as Convention 189 on domestic workers, adopted in 2011, which recognises their right to organise and collective bargaining.
Similarly, the bill on domestic workers, introduced by the government in 2013, has not yet been voted on. The legislative vacuum surrounding domestic workers, it has to be said, is convenient for some: “It is easier to exploit them when they’re not organised,” says Wansa.
But Marieke Koning, a policy officer at the ITUC with a focus on gender inequality and migrant domestic workers, says that the international labour movement stands firmly behind these women.
Despite being exploited on a daily basis, deprived from even the most basic human and trade union rights, on that day [25 January] hundreds of courageous women and men stood up to rise and form a union. Now that union, which is their fundamental right, is under attack.
“But they are not alone. From Peru to Hong Kong and Ethiopia to Norway, international union solidarity is building and we will support them in their struggle.”
At the end of the conference, Sosina says it saddens her “to be excluded from Lebanese law”. But a smile quickly returned to her face: “But today we have seen that together we can be strong.”
This article has been translated from French.