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Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are legally invisible – UN expert on contemporary forms of slavery

BEIRUT (17 October 2011) – United Nations Special Rapporteur, Gulnara Shahinian, today urged the Government of Lebanon to enact legislation to protect some 200,000 domestic workers in the country, warning that without legal protection some of them end up living in domestic servitude, under absolute control and dependency on their employers through economic exploitation and physical, psychological and sexual abuses.

“Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, majority of whom are women are legally invisible which makes them acutely vulnerable to domestic servitude,” said the UN expert monitoring contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, at the end of her first visit the country. “The migrant domestic worker is required to live in their employer’s households, faces racial and gender discrimination and is deprived of the necessary legal protection to safeguard their rights.”

“I met with women who had been forced to work long hours without any remuneration or valid contract; physically and sexually abused; and morally harassed by constantly being insulted, humiliated and belittled,” Ms. Shahinian said stressing that the lack of legal protection leaves domestic workers vulnerable to domestic servitude at the hands of recruitment and placement agencies and ultimately at the hands of their employers.

The UN Special Rapporteur urged the Lebanese authorities to ensure that domestic workers obtain legal protection and have prompt and immediate access to remedies and justice, and that employers are aware of their obligations when recruiting domestic workers.

Ms. Shahinian noted that the Government has taken some positive measures such as the establishment of a hotline for receiving calls. A national steering committee was also formed to address the issue of migrant domestic workers. The committee succeeded in developing a standard unified contract and a new draft law for migrant domestic workers.

“This law has been in its drafting stage for the past three years and it is now time that it be made a priority by the government. The law needs to balance the rights and obligations of both the employer and employee. It also needs to explicitly guarantee that migrant domestic workers are allowed to keep their passports, have freedom of movement, a day off outside the employers’ house, adequate private lodging and fair wages” the UN expert said. “It also needs to establish criteria of what a potential employer must have and include specific provisions on how recruitment agencies are to conduct their work and be monitored.”

“Currently, the visa regime is such that if a domestic worker leaves an employer, she immediately breaks the law. In the case of a domestic worker held in domestic servitude, she is, as a result, treated as a criminal instead of a victim of human rights violations,” Ms. Shahinian said.

The human rights expert underscored that migrant domestic workers provide an indispensable contribution to society that allows many Lebanese women to leave their homes, gain economic independence and develop their careers. “If fair labour practices and human rights protections are ensured, the sector can offer domestic workers opportunities to earn an additional salary for themselves and their families and to have the opportunity to experience another country and culture.”

Ms. Gulnara Shahinian was appointed as the first Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, its causes and consequences in May 2008. She is a lawyer with extensive experience as an expert consultant for various UN, EU, Council of Europe, OSCE and government bodies on children’s rights, gender, migration and trafficking. Ms Shahinian is also a former trustee of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary forms of Slavery.

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Independent Expert: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Slavery/SRSlavery/Pages/SRSlaveryIndex.aspx

UN Human Rights country page – Lebanon: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/MENARegion/Pages/LBIndex.aspx

For additional information and media requests during the visit, please contact:
Ms. Marguerite El Helou (+961 1 978 880 elheloum@un.org) or write to srslavery@ohchr.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, OHCHR Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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