Category Archives: News

18Sep/20

Lebanon: New Safeguards for Migrant Domestic Workers

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Protestors holding banners calling for the abolishment of Lebanon’s controversial kafala sponsorship system.
© 2019 Adib Chowdhury / SOPA Images/Sipa via AP Images

 

(Beirut) – The new standard unified contract for migrant domestic workers that Lebanon’s Labor Ministry adopted on September 4, 2020 is a step in the right direction toward protecting domestic workers’ rights and abolishing the abusive kafala (sponsorship) system if it is accompanied by a stringent enforcement mechanism, Human Rights Watch said today.

The new contract allows workers to terminate their contract without the consent of their employer and provides key labor guarantees already afforded to other workers, such as a 48-hour work week, a weekly rest day, overtime pay, sick pay, annual leave, and the national minimum wage, with some permissible deductions for housing and food.

“If enforced, the new standard unified contract is a win for advancing the rights of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, as it includes vital safeguards against forced labor,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But new protections mean little unless the government publicizes them widely and sets up and rigorously implements ways to enforce them.”

An estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers, the majority of them women from African and Southeast Asian countries, including Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, work in Lebanon. They are excluded from Lebanon’s labor law protections, and their status in the country is regulated by the kafala system – a restrictive immigration regime of laws, regulations, and customary practices which ties migrant workers’ legal residency to their employer.

Human Rights Watch and many other organizations have documented for years how the kafala system gives employers huge control over workers’ lives. This has led to an array of abuses, including non-payment of wages, forced confinement, excessive working hours with no rest days or breaks, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Those who left their employers without “permission” risked losing their legal residency in the country and facing detention and deportation. The previous contract only made exceptions for workers in extreme cases of abuse, with the burden of proof falling on the worker, effectively leaving workers trapped, including in situations of forced labor.

Under the new standard unified contract, workers can terminate without notice if they are subjected to any form of abuse or if the employer does not abide by any of the contract’s provisions. Either party can terminate the contract without notice if there are unforeseen events beyond their control that prevent them from completing the contract period.

Either party can also terminate at will with one month’s notice. However, if either the employer or worker terminates the contract without notice and there is no breach of the contractual provisions, they are required to pay compensation of one month’s salary. The employer may also be able to recoup part of their recruitment costs if the domestic worker terminates the contract before the end of the two-year contract, from either the recruitment agency, in accordance with labor ministry decisions, or from the new employer, worked out on the basis of the total amount of recruitment costs divided by the number of months of the contract, in which the new employer pays the equivalent of the number of months remaining in the contract. Domestic workers should not be made to pay any recruitment costs in any circumstance.  

The new contract, if enforced, would finally provide migrant domestic workers in Lebanon many core labor protections that other workers have under the labor law. The new contract recognizes the right of workers to retain their identification documents at all times, to own a phone and communicate freely, and to leave their employers’ homes and move freely during their rest periods. It also protects their right to a healthy and safe working and living environment.

The contract also stipulates that domestic workers are entitled to the national minimum wage, with some permissible deductions for housing and food. The Labor Ministry said in a decision that deductions should not exceed 30 percent of the salary. The Labor Ministry should ensure that the deduction is for the personal use of the worker and their family and that they are fair and reasonable, including ensuring that items directly related to the performance of domestic work are not considered as payment in-kind that can be deducted from their salary, as international labor standards dictate.

“Previously, migrant domestic workers had no clear legal basis to complain about long working hours, low wages, lack of overtime pay and rest, and could get trapped in abusive workplaces with little recourse,” said Majzoub. “This contract – if, and only if, properly enforced – helps fight the conditions that lead to forced labor and servitude.”

The new contract does not allow workers to join and form unions, however. Ensuring the right to freedom of association for domestic workers is vital for strengthening legal protection systems and for combatting rampant abuse. Lebanese authorities should recognize the domestic workers’ union and allow workers to freely join any union of their choice, without negative consequences. They should treat all workers in accordance with international human rights law, which requires them to respect the rights of everyone in their territory to freedom of association, without discrimination.

“Global experience has shown us time and again that workers’ organizations are crucial for spreading information about rights among workers, and supporting them to bring complaints forward to authorities,” Majzoub said. “Supporting freedom of association is essential for turning this contract into changes in domestic workers’ daily lives.”

Labor Minister Lamia Yammine, announced that the new contract will be adopted as of September 21. However, the ministry has not yet disclosed its plans for rolling out the new contract or provided instructions to employers and workers on the procedures for moving to the new contract. The ministry should conduct a public awareness campaign about the new contract provisions and consider mandatory orientation programs for both employers and workers on their legal rights and obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

The ministry should also urgently create an oversight and enforcement system to ensure that employers abide by the contract’s provisions and that employers who violate its provisions are held accountable. The ministry should set clear penalties for common abuses – such as non-payment of wages, forced confinement, excessive work hours, and food deprivation – on a sliding scale of sanctions commensurate with the gravity of the violations. The penalties should serve as effective deterrents to violations and provide redress for workers whose rights are violated.

The ministry also needs to create a complaint system, including fast-track dispute resolution, and ensure that labor inspectors have the authority and training to inspect working conditions. They should be able to enter employers’ homes, with due regard to privacy, and interview domestic workers away from their employers.

The new contract is based on recommendations by a working group established in April 2019 by then-Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman and headed by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to dismantle Lebanon’s kafala system. Human Rights Watch is a member. In June 2019, the working group submitted to the Labor Ministry an action plan with steps to abolish kafala and introduce protections for migrant domestic workers.

Implementing a rights-respecting contract is only the first step toward protecting domestic workers rights and abolishing the kafala system, Human Rights Watch said.

The Lebanese authorities should urgently take other steps to dismantle the kafala system by ensuring that migrant workers are not dependent on their employers for their legal status in the country and amending the labor law to include migrant domestic workers. The authorities should also strengthen the labor ministry’s complaints and enforcement system, outlaw detaining migrant domestic workers for lack of legal residency, regularize the status of undocumented migrant workers, and train security forces and the judiciary to respond to and investigate abuses against migrant domestic workers.

Previously, migrant domestic workers had no clear legal basis to complain about long working hours, low wages, lack of overtime pay and rest, and could get trapped in abusive workplaces with little recourse.This contract – if, and only if, properly enforced – helps fight the conditions that lead to forced labor and servitude.

Aya Majzoub

Lebanon Researcher, Human Rights Watch

Lebanon is obligated under international human rights law to ensure that domestic workers and migrant workers have protections equal to those for other workers under the law.

“If the labor minister is serious about abolishing the abusive kafala system, she should ensure that the new contract is properly implemented with effective enforcement and move quickly to abolish the kafala system in full so that migrant workers are not left at the mercy of their employers,” Majzoub said. “Migrant domestic workers leave their homes to care for others in Lebanon; they should be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”

18Sep/20

Venezuela: UN Inquiry Finds Crimes Against Humanity

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Members the National Police Action Force, or FAES, an elite commando unit created for anti-gang operations, patrol the Antimano neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, January 29, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

(Geneva, September 17, 2020) – The United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela has concluded that Venezuelan authorities and armed pro-government groups committed egregious violations amounting to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said today.

The report, published on September 16, 2020, said the independent experts leading the mission had reasonable grounds to hold that “most of the violations and crimes … were part of a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population … in furtherance of a state policy.” The experts found that “High-level authorities had knowledge of and contributed to the commission of these crimes” and that “Commanders and superiors knew or should have known about them, and … did not take measures to prevent or repress them.” 

“This report is a solid indictment that attributes direct responsibility to high-level authorities, including the head of state, for violations that include extrajudicial executions, politically motivated detention and torture, and abuses against protesters in Venezuela,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The findings also expose the role of the Venezuelan judiciary in contributing to arbitrary arrests and impunity for these egregious abuses and denying justice to the victims.” 

The UN Human Rights Council created the mission through its Resolution 42/25 on September 27, 2019. Its mandate was to investigate human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment since 2014, with a view to ensuring accountability for those responsible and justice for victims. 

The report describes the independent experts’ findings, based on the investigation of 223 cases and the review of an additional 2,891 cases to identify whether there were patterns of violations and crimes. A detailed description of 48 of these cases is included in the 411-page report. The experts’ conclusions are based on interviews with victims and their family members, lawyers, and witnesses, as well as former and current members of the judiciary and security forces, verified images and videos, and government documents, including laws, policies, and directives. Despite repeated requests, Venezuelan authorities did not allow the experts to visit Venezuela.

The experts concluded that they had “reasonable grounds to believe that both the President and the Ministers of Interior and of Defence ordered or contributed to the commission of the crimes documented in this report, and having the effective ability to do so failed to take preventive and repressive measures.” Commanding officers, including high-level authorities within intelligence services, had full knowledge of the patterns that often took place inside their installations, the experts found. They said they had identified more than 45 intelligence officials directly responsible.

In a statement to the media, the experts said that the competent authorities in Venezuela, other national governments, and the International Criminal Court should consider legal actions against those responsible for the violations and crimes they documented. 

The experts documented 53 extrajudicial executions and reviewed 2,552 additional incidents involving 5,094 killings by security forces, although not all were necessarily arbitrary. It found that the investigative police and the Special Action Forces of the National Bolivarian Police were responsible for 59 percent of all killings by security forces.

The experts also found that intelligence agents carried out politically motivated detention and torture. Specifically, in 110 documented cases, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service targeted political dissidents, human rights activists, and others perceived to be opponents, and the General Directorate of Military Counter-Intelligence targeted military personnel and associated civilians allegedly involved in rebellions or coup attempts, holding them in unofficial or clandestine facilities. The experts identified six of these sites. 

In the case of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, the experts found that orders establishing who would be investigated often came from President Nicolás Maduro or the powerful pro-government politician Diosdado Cabello to the agency’s director, who delivered the instructions to others. 

The experts said that some detentions amounted to short-term enforced disappearances. Detainees were tortured – including with stress positions, asphyxiation, beatings, electric shocks, cuts and mutilations, death threats, and sexual violence – to extract confessions or as punishment. 

In addition, the experts documented 97 cases of human rights violations against protesters, particularly during the crackdowns in 2014, 2017, and 2019. The violations included killings of 36 protesters and torture and other ill-treatment in detention such as beatings and humiliation, sexual and gender-based violence, and mock executions. Protesters were often charged with crimes based on information planted or fabricated by security forces.

Most unlawful killings by security forces have not resulted in prosecutions, and at no stage have officials with command responsibility been brought to justice, according to the experts. Moreover, some public prosecutors and judges played “a direct role” in arbitrary arrests, the experts found.

The lack of judicial independence in Venezuela has led to impunity for human rights crimes, Human Rights Watch said. 

During the current UN Human Rights Council sessions, members will vote on a resolution drafted by Latin American governments members of the Lima Group to extend the Fact-Finding Mission’s mandate. The current draft also says that The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should continue reporting on the situation of human rights in Venezuela, and that Venezuelan authorities should cooperate with both.

Human Rights Watch, together with dozens of international and Venezuelan human rights groups, has said that member states should ensure that the Fact-Finding Mission has sufficient funding and the authority to collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyze evidence for future prosecutions or other accountability purposes, including by international justice mechanisms, to avoid impunity for the crimes under international law and gross human rights violations committed in Venezuela.

“This is the closest the victims of the Maduro government have been to seeing their abusers held accountable,” Vivanco said. “It is essential to extend and expand the Fact-Finding Mission’s mandate so victims can eventually exercise their right of access to justice.”
 

17Sep/20

Liberia’s President Should Showcase Justice on International Stage

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Liberia’s President George Manneh Weah addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 25, 2019.
© 2019 AP Photo/Richard Drew

One year ago, Liberian President George Weah gave hope to victims of brutal crimes committed during the country’s civil wars when he spoke at the United Nations General Assembly about pursuing a war crimes court for Liberia.

He said consultations with the national legislature were already in motion, and engagement with the judicial system and international partners on the court’s creation was on the way. But since then, there has been little progress.

Liberians suffered tremendously during the wars, which spanned more than 14 years starting in 1989, and left tens of thousands dead. Warring parties gunned down civilians in their homes, marketplaces, and places of worship. Women and girls were subjected to horrific sexual violence including gang rape, sexual slavery, and torture. Villages were destroyed. Children were abducted and forced into armed service.

The government has begun to allow foreign investigators into Liberia to investigate war crimes for overseas prosecutions. But not one alleged perpetrator has faced a court of law in Liberia. While Covid-19 is presenting unprecedented challenges to Liberia, some steps toward accountability should be possible.

Liberian, regional, and international organizations wrote to President Weah on September 10 asking him to use his speech at this month’s General Assembly to request UN assistance in setting up a war crimes court, reviving plans for justice, and rekindling the hopes of victims and their families.

The UN Human Rights Committee in 2018 concluded that Liberia should “establish a process of accountability for past gross human rights violations and war crimes that conforms to international standards” and report back by July 27, 2020. A report has yet to be submitted.

Meanwhile, former warlords are working to block a war crimes court, and last October, the speaker of Liberia’s legislature declined to introduce a resolution on the court, despite strong backing among lawmakers. Human rights activists who have championed accountability have faced increasing threats, as have witnesses to civil wars-era crimes.

President Weah will be on the international stage when he speaks at the General Assembly, even as the debate happens virtually this year. He should send a clear message that he stands with victims and that the brutal crimes committed during Liberia’s civil wars will no longer go unpunished.