Strategic dialogue between trade union federations in Kenya and Lebanon strengthens support and empowerment of Kenyan workers in Lebanon

A visit by a trade union delegation from Central Organization of Trade Unions Kenya (COTU-K) to Lebanon in July 2022 shed light on the challenges faced by Kenyan migrant workers, and focused on ways in which inter-union collaboration on both side of the migration corridor can create a more solid protection framework and amplify the voice of migrant workers.

News | 01 August 2022
Since the start of the economic crisis in Lebanon, which saw the average wages of families plummet, there has been a massive decline in the recruitment of migrant domestic workers to the country. However, based on Ministry of Labour’s administrative (work permit) data, one nationality which saw a major increase was the Kenyan community, with the number of new domestic workers jumping from 851 in 2019 to 3,233 new workers in 2021. However, testimony of newly-arrived Kenyan workers demonstrated that many were deceived by their recruitment agencies into coming to Lebanon, were placed with families that did not pay their wages, or in working conditions vastly different to that which they were promised in their contracts or by their recruitment agencies.

Given the critical role that trade unions in countries of origin and destination can play in ensuring that human and labour rights of migrant workers are respected, the National Federation of Worker and Employee Trade Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL) and (COTU-K), decided to participate in a series of virtual meetings from February 2022, facilitated by the FAIRWAY Programme and in consultation with the ILO’s Bureau for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV), to tackle the immediate issues faced by the Kenyan migrant workers as well as to discuss strategic bilateral engagement. Based on the findings of ILO’s action-oriented research on collaboration between African and Arab trade unions to support migrant workers, the respective unions identified particular lessons learnt in previous union-to-union collaborations, and decided to proceed with a fact-finding mission by COTU-K to Lebanon.

During the four day visit from 16-20 July 2022, COTU-K representatives (Ms Rose Omamo, Mr Adams Barasa and Ms Teresa Wabuko) met with dozens of Kenyan migrant domestic workers to hear their challenges and concerns, through a meeting organized by FENASOL. The representatives also met with Lebanon's caretaker Minister of Labour, Mustafa Bayram, representatives of the General Directorate of General Security and several Members of Parliament to stress the importance of protecting migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.

The trade union federations reaffirmed their support to keep working together to push their respective governments to ratify ILO conventions such as the Private Employment Agencies Convention, 1997 (No. 181) the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), the Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190) as well as better compliance with the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), which has been ratified by both Kenyan and Lebanon.

The unions also agreed to work together to promote strengthened regulatory frameworks on recruitment agencies and to collaborate in exposing fraud and exploitation.  Most importantly, they re-affirmed their unity and solidarity to continue to fight for the rights of Kenyan migrant domestic workers, and all migrant workers in Lebanon.

The situation of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon remains precarious, particularly as a result of the operation of the kafala system creates a heavily unbalanced employer-migrant worker relationship  that impedes migrant workers’ freedom of movement and their right to terminate employment or change employers, among other negative practices, thus putting them at risk of forced labour. In September 2020, former Minister of Labour Lamia Yammine issued a revised Standard Unified Contract  based on a reform action plan and a draft contract developed by the ILO and key national stakeholders, and which addressed many of the key elements of the kafala system that can lead to forced labour. The revised Standard Unified Contract was however indefinitely suspended in October 2020 by the Shura Council, Lebanon’s highest administrative court, based on a complaint from the Syndicate of Private Recruitment Agencies, and remains suspended.