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Labor Ministry walks out of domestic workers conference.

Summary: In a controversial move, the Labor Ministry representative withdrew from a major conference on migrant domestic workers Monday, saying that the ministry had other priorities than migrant workers.

BEIRUT: In a controversial move, the Labor Ministry representative withdrew from a major conference on migrant domestic workers Monday, saying that the ministry had other priorities than migrant workers. The conference, organized by the American University of Beirut's Issam Fares Institute and the International Labor Organization, however, continued as scheduled. The program started with the "Consultation on Policy Options for Domestic Work: In the Context of the Care Economy, Who Cares?"

"Despite the importance of the subject that is being discussed today, it isn't one of the government's, ministry's or people's priorities at this fateful stage, when the entity and the nation are at stake, as well as constitutional institutions," said Joumana Haymour, the Labor Ministry representative, claiming that the event organizers didn't consult with the ministry over the issues discussed.

"The priority now is to work to save Lebanon and find a real solution for the Syrian refugees," Haymour said.

Despite the irritation that this statement caused among some of the attendees, after Haymour left, the conference picked up to launch a study titled "Intertwined."

Written by Dr. Sawsan Abdulrahim, associate professor and chair of the Department of Health Promotion and Community Health at AUB, the study focused on the employers of MDW. She looked at the extent to which employers understand the obligations and duties that govern their relationship with their domestic employees.

The study surveyed 1,200 Lebanese employers of live-in foreign workers. Those surveyed lived in greater Beirut, Sidon, Jounieh and Jbeil, and 84.9 percent of them were women. There are over 250,000 migrant "women" domestic workers in Lebanon, the study found.

Additionally, the study looked into the notion of the "care economy" -- care provision in a context where care is needed but families don't or can't provide it -- tying it to the current vulnerable status of MDW in Lebanon.

"Demographic shifts and changes in gender roles and working patterns in Lebanon have brought about an increasing need for quality, accessible and affordable home care," the study found. As more women -- traditional providers of care for children and the elderly in the family -- stay in the labor market, families are increasingly relying on foreign workers to take on this duty. This increases the scope of intended work for domestic workers from performing household duties to also offering care.

"In the past, mostly women in the family provided care-giving. Now the social demographics are changing, women don't have time to provide this care anymore, and the system isn't changing," Abdulrahim told The Daily Star on the sidelines of the conference.

She explained that the demand for this kind of care has been bolstered by the failure of the Lebanese government to offer long maternity-leave periods and very limited services for the old.

"The problem is that this care isn't valued and [it needs skilled] workers because taking care of an older adult who needs to take medication, who needs to be bathed ... needs training," Abdulrahim added. "These are unskilled workers; their work is undervalued. They are women to start with, so they are undervalued because of their gender. They come from countries that we see as poor and they are racialized in our mind ... so all of these factors combined, they basically increase multiple layers of oppression on these women."

With this issue in mind, the rest of the data provided in the study complemented the fact that MDW are undervalued.

Wage is one area that highlights this undervaluation. "There is nothing in the contract that sets a minimum wage or salary of domestic workers," Abdulrahim said.

The study found that the salaries of the employees, as reported by their employers, varied between households: 36.1 percent said they pay between $150 and $199 per month and 42.5 percent reported they pay between $200 and $299 per month.

The relationship between the MDW and the employer is set by a work contract that is signed between both parties at a notary office. The relationship is also controlled by a sponsorship system better known as kafala.

The sponsorship system ties a migrant domestic worker's residence permit to one specific employer or sponsor in Lebanon. This has long been criticized by activists, who argue that it encourages inequality and opens the door to abuse.

Respecting the worker's right to a day off also reflects on the working conditions of workers. Although the contract states that workers have the right to a full day of rest, 57.3 percent of MDWs reportedly work seven days a week.

"The findings suggest that even though most MDW don't work more than 12 hours a day, as prescribed by the standard contract," the study said, "their working week is longer than the 40-48 weekly limits set out in international labor standards."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Article Type:Conference news
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Sep 20, 2016
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