Recognizing the work of more than 200,000 invisible women who care for our loved ones in the homeland
Marie-José L. Tayah, Ph.D. Candidate
Lebanese emigrants are celebrated for their many achievements in the diaspora. They are famed doctors, politicians, designers, artists, athletes, scientists, CEOs, and financiers. Emigrant remittances, accounting for nearly 20 percent of Lebanon’s GDP, are critical for Lebanon’s economic survival against a backdrop of political instability.
Supporting this system is an invisible workforce of low skilled migrant women who take over emigrants’ routine family obligations. Emigrants leave elderly mothers and fathers in the care of more than 200,000 women migrant domestic workers from Asia and Africa. These women clean and cook for them, administer their medicine and injections, lend them a helping hand during walks, showers, and visits to doctors, and listen affectionately to their concerns and aspirations. Given their exclusion from labour protections and their willingness to work longer hours in return for meager wages, WMDWs constitute an easy and low cost solution to the Lebanese care deficit.
Nonetheless, migrant domestic workers earn less than half of average wages, experience long and unpredictable working hours, and remain excluded from national labour legislations. In addition, domestic workers are prone to a variety of occupational injuries. The everyday pulling, pushing, and bending over induces repetitive strain injuries, and the long-term exposure to dust and cleaning products leads to respiratory illnesses. Furthermore, nursing the elderly and disabled without the assistance of other caregivers leads to debilitating musculoskeletal and chronic sleep disorders. Finally, low earning levels often mean that domestic workers cannot seek adequate treatment.
The case for reciprocity
Lebanese emigrants are afforded basic labour rights in the countries where they take up residence. To varying degrees, they enjoy non-discriminatory hiring practices, working conditions, pay, benefits, promotions, lay-offs and termination of employment. Why are women migrant domestic workers in Lebanon subject to different standards than those we seek for ourselves? Similar to Lebanon’s expatriates, these women leave their children and parents in the care of a local caregiver while they embark on more lucrative employment opportunities in the Middle East. They remit on average up to 70 per cent of their wages to educate children or siblings, build family homes, and finance basic household consumption.
A call for action
On June 16, 2011, the International Labour Conference of the International Labour Organization adopted Convention 189, known as the Domestic Workers Convention. The Convention recognizes that domestic work is work and that domestic workers are, like other workers, entitled to decent work. Following its ratification by Bolivia, Guyana, Germany, Italy, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Philippines, South Africa and Uruguay, Convention 189 came into force on 5 September 2013.
While Convention 189 promotes decent hiring, working, and living conditions for all domestic workers, it speaks specifically to the rights of migrant domestic workers. For instance, Convention 189 advocates the establishment of contracts that have implementation force in the host country, the development of clear conditions to guide the repatriation of migrant domestic workers, and the institution of safeguards against the abusive practices of private employment agencies. Moreover, Convention 189 urges sending and receiving countries to cooperate for the effective implementation of the Convention.
Lebanon adopted Convention 189, and in doing so recognized domestic workers as workers who are worthy of the legal and social protections granted to other categories of workers. Lebanon has yet to ratify Convention 189, thereby committing to bring its legislations closer in line with the stipulations of the Convention.
As long as Lebanon’s labour market challenges continue to be diffused by a ‘passive’ policy of encouraging emigration, and as long as Lebanon lacks formal long term care services to cater for the needs of those left behind, the demand for migrant domestic workers will continue to grow. Ignoring the hazardous conditions or slavery-like situations within which domestic workers have to operate is no longer an option.
Over the last decades, Lebanese diasporic groups have promoted numerous human rights agendas through funding, media campaigns, and the direct lobbying of parliamentarians.Join the WLCU to help promote decent for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon by calling on the Government of Lebanon to ratify Convention 189!
Read the full text of the Convention:
C189 – Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) in English
C189 – Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) in Spanish
C189 – Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) in French
C189 – Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) in Arabic
All view expressed in this editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of the institutions with which she is affiliated.
Marie-José L. Tayah is a PhD candidate at Kent State University’s Department of Political Science. Tayah was a Fulbright Conflict Resolution graduate grantee at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (2006-2008), a Visiting Scholar at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies (2008), and a Research Affiliate at the Lebanese Emigration Research Center (2008-2011). Tayah worked as research coordinator and knowledge sharing officer at ILO’s Regional Office for Arab States (2011-2013) and as Junior Research Expert and Evaluator at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (2005-2006).
 In addition to supporting Lebanese emigration, and perhaps most importantly WMDWs contribute to the employability of Lebanese women, releasing the latter from their traditional function of primary caregivers in the household.