Founding Congress of Domestic Workers’ Union of Fenasol: Statement by Anna Biondi

Statement | Beirut, Lebanon | 09 February 2015
Shukran, Sabah al-khair
Ahlan bekom fi nakabat aamelat al-manazel,

Dear Castro Abdallah,
dear Fenasol leadership,
distinguished representatives of the General security and government,
international guests, including ITUC and ATUC and national Confederations,
dear participants and observers, including media and civil society organizations,
dear Sisters, Brothers and Comrades,

I am honoured to be here today in Beirut to be speaking at the opening session of this founding Congress of the Domestic Workers’ Union of Lebanon, conveying the greetings and wishes of the ACTRAV director, all the colleagues from the Bureau for Workers’ Activities and the ILO as a whole, starting with Ms. Nada al-Nashif, Director of the ILO Regional Office, as well as all the colleagues who were already mentioned by brother Castro.

Allow me to say at the outset that I am also pleased because of a personal commitment to this cause: I was the Secretary of the Workers’ Group when the issue of domestic workers (the future ILO Convention 189) was put on the agenda of the International Labour Conference, at a time when many -, the majority of people I would say - were saying that the ILO could not adopt this Convention, that domestic work was difficult to regulate, impossible to find the actors for dialogue, and so on: objections that are still made, but fortunately less heard of today.
And yet – once the world Parliament of Labour came together (and paying respect to the hard work of Halima Yacob and Marieke Koning who lead the Workers’Group as Spokesperson and Secretary in the Committee work) – wisdom prevailed and the ILO was able to respond to the demand of the sisters who had knock at our door, such as Myrtle Witbooi from South Africa, who I am pleased to meet again here, now as the President of the International Federation of Domestic Workers, and who was part of the first small delegation that travelled to Geneva long ago, asking for Decent Work for Domestic Workers, together with organizations such as ITUC, IUF and others.

From the founding Congress in Montevideo of the International Federation of Domestic Workers to the already 15 ratifications and going of Convention 189, to the birth of many organizations with innovative schemes (which should give useful ideas to all precarious workers), the messages are – finally - only two and simple: all workers have the right to Decent Work and, in order to achieve social justice and do no fear, we need to build solidarity.

Decent work means working conditions where all workers can enjoy jobs based on four principles: freely chosen employment, social protection, social dialogue and fundamental rights.
Freely chosen employment means that workers need to be able to control their lives, their passport and documents cannot be retained and they need to have an employment contract clearly stating the terms and conditions of work.

Social protection means that all workers need to be able to access labour protection (on hours of work and rest, wages and compensation, safety and health) as well as social security (for which provisions have to be drafted in the national planning). Social dialogue means that all the parties in question (government, trade unions and employers’ organizations) need to start discussing together on how to help create the architecture of a new system which is useful and necessary, not only for workers but for society at large; and here I plea the authorities present at this gathering to start this important process, including encouraging the formation of associations of employers.

Finally, and most importantly, fundamental rights at work are the building blocks of all: domestic workers as any other workers cannot be working under forced labour, child labour or discrimination and they must have the right to form freely chosen trade unions and have the effective right to bargain collectively. Since we know instead that these rights (which all countries have committed to apply irrespective of race, gender and nationality, when they adopted the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work already in 1998) are the most abused all over the world; what hope you are giving today to all of us with this gathering!

We know that the building of a stronger and more democratic world of work and society at large has always started by the workers themselves, when they have overcome the fear and isolation and have built their own organizations, discussing common problems and offering solutions. It was difficult to do especially in a setting where many were the languages, difficult were the contacts (with many workers having only few free hours a week, many having none): hence such a joy to see this beautiful mosaic of people today!

The second building block that I mentioned earlier is solidarity. This is why this Congress is so important, because – first in the Arab region (if I am correct) – a national centre and a sectoral general union at national level have opened the doors to create an organization where all domestic workers, nationals and non-nationals, women and men, can find a common platform to offer dialogue and solutions to government and employers. This is very important because first, we need to support the brave persons that are making history today: we are in together sisters and brothers!

The job is only just starting, efforts will need to be doubled in terms of supporting communication (especially when many languages are involved as this is the case) and above all starting the clear setting of the progressive policy plan that you want to discuss with government and employers’ organizations.

The ILO commits to staying engaged with you and with the other actors in order to offer proposals in terms of social dialogue, working hours, wages and benefits, basic social security, health and safety guidance, fair recruitment and protection of remittances. It is a progressive agenda which can be built step by step and which is perfectly possible to realize: the country as a whole would benefit from the realization of these rights at work, hence I want to thank once more the authorities who are present here today, since these workers count on the positive engagement of the government in this dialogue.

Allow me to share another personal memory as I did at the founding Congress of the International Federation of Domestic Workers: towards the end of her working life, my mother became a domestic worker once she lost her previous job as a seamstress. She immediately asked her employer to pay social security dues, something not so easily heard of in Italy in the 70s for domestic workers. She got them, together with recognition of her rights and dignity at work. She was a strong woman and today we are proud as ILO representatives to be here with so many strong women who are able to care for the children, the elderly and the families they attend with love and respect, but who therefore also deserve that respect back.

As ACTRAV, we’ll be committed to press for Freedom of Association and workers’ rights for all (as the banner behind me states the link between Conv. 189 and Conv. 87). As ILO as a whole – together with the many colleagues who have been working and will be working with you, starting with the representatives of the Regional Office who are here today as well as colleagues from Headquarter - we commit to consider this only the beginning of the journey and stay next to you in the future.

Taya nakabat Aamelat Al-manazel!
Long live the domestic workers’ movement!
Long live the trade union solidarity!