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Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon: An unjust system, how should individuals act?

In Lebanon the law covering the work of migrant domestic workers (MDWs) is deeply unjust. The situation of MDWs in Lebanon and the Middle East has been described to be a “little better than slavery”. That the law and practice should be reformed is clear. Whether this will happen any time in the near future is much less clear. What I want to focus on in this blog post is the question of how individuals who object to the law and practice should act.
A brief background: There are an estimated 200,000 MDWs employed by Lebanese families. The vast majority are women from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Nepal. MDWs are employed on short-term contracts. They are admitted into Lebanon on work visas that link them to a specific employer (a sponsor) and obliges them to live at the home of their employer. Their contracts are not covered by Lebanese labour law. This means they are excluded from entitlement to the Lebanese minimum wage guarantees, maximum number of working hours, vacation days and any compensation for unfair termination of contract. The contracts the migrants sign in their home countries with recruitment agencies are not recognized in Lebanon. Upon arrival they sign a contractual agreement (in Arabic), binding them to a specific employer (sponsor) often with different terms than the contract they signed home. The fact that their stay in the country is tied to their employer means they have practically no room for negotiating the terms of the contract. The government has recently imposed a standard contract for employing MDWs but it is far from being fairand is in any case poorly enforced. The facts are that there is a high incidence of abuse against MDWs. This ranges from “mistreatment by recruiters, non-payment or delayed payment of wages, forced confinement to the workplace, a refusal to provide any time off for the worker, forced labor, and verbal and physical abuse”
                                                       Source: Al-Akhbar (http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/18752)
The question: International organizations and more recently local NGOshave been advocating and proposing reforms. Meanwhile, what should individuals do?  They should take a clear stance in favor of the reforms, support NGO initiatives and awareness campaigns and combat attitudes of racism. That much seems obvious. A more difficult question, I find, is whether individuals ought to
  (A) refrain from employing MDWs as long as the practice is unjust; or 
  (B) employ MDWs while individually applying the terms and conditions that a fair law would  require.
On reason in favor of (A) is that employing MDWs counts as contributing to sustaining an unjust practice. One can easily avoid participating in the system as there is no sense in which refraining from employing an MDW imposes an unreasonable cost on individuals. Additionally, even if one could improve the conditions through individual arrangements with the MDW herself/himself (the vast majority of MDWs in Lebanon are women), one has no control over the other dehumanizing factors starting with the recruitment procedures in their home countries. Moreover, it is not only the contractual framework that is unjust. The justice system offers little protection, and a biased media and widespread racism make it the case that MDWs are highly vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse. I find this position rather convincing, but I also have the worry that it seems to be the easy way out.
I also think there are strong arguments in favour of (B). One can point out that the vast majority of MDWs migrate to escape severe poverty and send most of their earnings back home (remittances were estimated at $90million dollars in the first half of 2009; and remittances make up a high shareof the GDP of some countries).[1]Surely, it is better to offer them employment under fair conditions, notwithstanding the objections above, especially when noting that they are going to seek employment in Lebanon anyhow? The difficulty with this line of argument, however, lies in the host of tricky questions it raises. To mention only some, should one ensure that her prospective employee was not coerced (or misinformed) into taking up the job in her home country?  If so, when does the cost of doing so become unreasonable? What counts for a fair wage and working conditions? Is that the country’s minimum wage? What if someone cannot afford paying the fair wage? Does that mean one should opt for (A)?
These questions raise a difficulty for the following reason: if the rationale behind choosing (B) over (A) is that (B) improves on some person’s conditions and as such reduces the harm whereas (A) merely allows the harm to happen, then any improvement on the current conditions, no matter how small, would justify (B). This seems problematic. My intuition, is that one should try to maximally provide what ideal conditions would require. Take the example of wages for instance. I am assuming that determining what counts as a fair wage, whether equal or higher than the minimum wage, is not very complicated. Now, if the ideal wage exceeds what one is willing to pay for the service of an MDW, then one should not necessarily opt for (A) but rather pay the maximum amount beyond which the service is no longer attractive. This would imply, I presume, that people with higher incomes should pay higher wages. The assumption here, of course, is that individuals are genuinely interested in making the right ethical choice.
I am not sure I can fully defend the above intuition. Therefore, I would like to hear your views on this. I find the choice between (A) and (B) difficult, and this is a dilemma faced by many friends and family members home.

[1] Still trying to find more recent figures!

I am a PHD fellow at the Institute of Philosophy at KU Leuven. I am working on questions of distributive justice and in particular on principles of justice that are relevant to the European Union.


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  1. I am grateful that you open this discussion. I don't know the answers, but here are some thoughts which may be helpful in guiding the choices at stake. First, it looks like the really immoral agents here are the recruitment-and-placing agencies (supported by state negligence), and I assume that, by employing, employers reward financially these agencies and give them incentives to continue their practices. While it may not be possible to go for B without giving support to the agencies, employers are, perhaps, best situated to also undermine them: they have direct access to the MDW's predicament. They are epistemically best situated to spread the word about the various abuses – at least, better than someone who goes for the clean hands solution.

    Second, you say that 'if the rationale behind choosing (B) over (A) is that (B) improves on some person’s conditions and as such reduces the harm whereas (A) merely allows the harm to happen, then any improvement on the current conditions, no matter how small, would justify (B)'. I am not sure this is so, because employing a MDW is an all things considered decision, which balances at least two considerations: (1) how much the employer contributes to future injustice by strengthening the position of recruiting agencies on the one hand and (2) how much they improve the situation of the migrant they end up employing (and of their families).

    Finally, you mention that MDWs sign a contract in their country of origin which is then not enforced. Is there reason to assume that, in signing the contract, they give proper consent to employment under the specified conditions? If so, it seems plausible to take that contract as a point of reference in deciding what just treatment of the respective MDW would involve.

  2. Siba, thanks for the post. You raise a very difficult problem. Like Anca, I am not sure I have much by way of answers, but a thought that might illuminate a certain aspect of the problem. To wit, I wonder whether we can distinguish between the different types of bads involved in the case. Some things you mention seem like direct violations of negative duties – such as incidences of abuse, forced confinement to the work place. Others look more like instances of failing to benefit – such as not paying higher wages. (I do not mean to draw a really tight distinction here – I realise that failing to pay wages at a certain level could be classed a form of harm. I mean only to get at what look to be somewhat different types of bads in the case.) If that separation of cases makes some sense, might we think that the appropriate response, rather than being a choice of non-involvement or better practice, could also fall into two (or more) parts: for example, on the one hand, to cease the direct violations (i.e., non-involvement in certain aspects of the practice), and, on the other, to act in some way such that one helps alter the circumstances of the workers (either in their wages or through some other effective avenue)?

  3. Hi Siba, this is a huge and important question, and I think it concerns not only Lebanon (although it may be more extreme there), but also many other countries. I have looked a bit into theories of exploitation, and the debate is rather complicated, and not very clear-cut; see here for example: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/exploitation/). What the authors of this entry suggest is that a benchmark for non-exploitation could be a competitive market with no asymmetries of information. But the case of MDW suggests that this may not be all that there is to the problem. Asymmetries of information may play a certain role, but there is also the huge asymmetry of bargaining power between individuals from different countries, and it also influences the price…
    Having said this, my intuitive reaction is that I share your preference for option (B) in case the individuals in question are really willing to pay a fair price, whatever that would be. The reason behind this might be along the lines of: if one persons opts out of an unjust system, she may keep her hands clean, but it does not change the system. In the case of option (B) one at least makes a difference to one particular person’s life. But presumably, one still benefits from the structural injustices because one can hire domestic labour at a much lower rate than would be the case without these background injustices. So one still has a duty to contribute to changing the system in whatever ways one can.

  4. Anca, thanks for the comment. You are definitely right to point out that recruitment agencies contribute to the injustice and that in using them individuals strengthen their position. It remains, however, that the contract is between the individuals and the MDWs; the agencies' role is to liaison with their counterparts in the MDW country and take care of the adminstrative procedures. But as soon as the MDW enters Lebanon her contractual links are with her individual employer (the employer for instance is the one who picks her up at the airport). As for the contract signed in country of origin, I think this is a possible starting point. My worry is that the MDW might not even be in a position to negotiate the terms of her contact there.

  5. Thanks for the reply Siba! A question: are those working as recruiters for the agencies aware of the fact that they are seriously deceiving the MDWs they recruit? Do they know that the contracts with which they present the MDWs will not be binding?

  6. Hi Siba, I really appreciated this post and also agree with Lisa this is a problem that goes beyond any one national border. I share your preference for B and think that another possible justification would be that people in their home countries will hear about the difference between contracts, some of their acquaintances will be getting paid well and treated properly and others will not be. Awareness of this difference may make them demand more fair conditions and refuse more unjust contracts etc. Just a thought.

  7. Andrew, thanks for the comment. I agree that there is a distinction to be made between the wrongs involved. There is clearly a violation of negative duties on the part of individuals, recruitment agencies and the state. That individuals should not violate those duties is also clear. I am assuming (hoping) that individuals genuinely dismayed by the injustice of the practice do not commit such violations. My question is whether this is enough. Also, yes beyond a certain point failing to provide higher wages could be seen as a failure to benefit. but with things as they are the wages (around 150 USD per month) are blatantly unfair. Do you think that we should still consider paying below the fair wage (assuming we can fix that a certain rate and taking it as a baseline) failure to benefit rather than a harm?

  8. Thanks Siba for the important post. I wonder whether it is in fact possible for an individual to apply the "terms and conditions that a fair law would require". One aspect of fair employment law is that the employment conditions are not subject to the arbitrary will of the employer. That however is not something an individual can replicate because even if they want to be (and truly believe they will be) a fair employer there is nothing to stop them from becoming an unfair employer.

    So one problem with choosing B, is that you are placing someone under your arbitrary will. We might have intrinsic reasons not to do that, or (probably more importantly) consequential worries about how you might act once you have that power over someone else. We might also worry about how this arbitrary power affects the MDWs, since they are reliant on their employer's continued beneficence and have to adjust their behaviour accordingly.

    (P.s. I don't think this is a decisive objection against B, only something we should consider).

  9. I am not sure . I have to check . I am assuming they do. Again, you are right to point out that rendering the recruitment process more fair, be it due to government or employers' pressure, goes a long way to improving the situation.

  10. Siba, to be honest, I am still trying to unpick the different ways to come at the problem, but here is a certain way to think about it. Most commonly we think of ‘harm’ as involving making people worse-off compared to some baseline. Common baselines are diachronic (worse-off than they were beforehand, on net or on any incommensurable aspect of welfare) or subjunctive (worse-off than some alternative world). And we can focus our attention in, at least, one of two ways: on individual transactions or on systems and structures. One might think that considerations of subjunctive harm are best addressed towards the latter, perhaps because how individuals fare against this baseline, in either an ideal or non-ideal world, is largely a collective problem. That is, conceptualising and ensuring individuals get that to which they are entitled (including a ‘fair wage’) depends on a host of actors doing what they ought in a fairly coordinated way. On that account, individual duties (including those concerned with harm) can still be derived, but they are addressed primarily to social and political change (something like Anca’s point about whether either of the actions you suggest contributes to changing the overall system). Determining ideas about subjunctive harm in isolated transactions, on the other hand, seems rather more complicated. Given the collective dimension of the problem, to derive individual obligations in these cases (and determining violations of those duties) we need to explore the relevance of myriad other actors acting in myriad other ways. You say that the wage is ‘blatantly unfair’. Perhaps it is clearly not the wage that would be paid in some preferable world where structures are different and/or where other actors are acting in certain ways. But does departing from that benchmark in a world where structures and other actors are not doing what they ought imply a form of harm? I find it difficult to answer that question without a quite complex theory about the relation between individual and collective obligation and ideal and non-ideal justice. (And note, to consider the issues, it is important to separate the line of reasoning from a clearly relevant, but separate concern for improving the lives of less-advantaged individuals).

    That would leave us with the case of diachronic harm. Here it is much easier to see how an individual transaction can involve harms. The cases I suggested in my first comment are obvious instances. But if we set aside those types of incommensurable harm and focus on the wage question, it seems to follow that MDW are not harmed. Higher wages would be beneficial, but low wages do not leave the individuals less well-off on any aspect of welfare than prior to the transaction.

    I do not mean any of the above to settle anything – as I say, I continue to grapple with the issues myself and focusing a definition of harm would hardly address all the morally important factors. But if the reasoning above has some plausibility, there might seem something against understanding the moral problem in that way and it might have implications (as I suggest above) for how best to think about the appropriate course of action.

  11. This is a fair point Bruno. What I had in mind, which would partly address your worry, is that the improved conditions would be included into a legal contractual agreement between the employer and the MDW. I would need to check how the justice/legal system works and if it allows for customized contracts to override the standard contract imposed by the government.

  12. That would be quite an effective self-regulating check. It would depend on the power and resources of the MDW to enforce the terms of the better contract against the individual employer (e.g. can they go to employment tribunals with it, do they have legal aid to pay for that etc…). Do you know how well these kind of contracts have worked?

  13. Thanks for the post, Siba. My sense is that in choosing between (A) and (B) we must simply look at the empirical data regarding which option is most likely to result is the smallest net deviation from perfect justice. I am tempted to say that the question is a consequential one: Will (A) or (B) do a better long-term job (consequentially speaking) at mitigating/neutralising injustice? It may be that there are certain reasons (perhaps grounded in exploitation or the importance of positive or negative duties) to favour one over the other, but I suspect that these reasons would be comfortably defeated if one option turned out to be more effective than an other. What we really need, therefore, is further empirical analysis about the efficacy of each option.

  14. Andrew, the distinctions you make are indeed helpful. I think I agree that if we reason about the issue in terms of harm then we might have to choose the diachronic baseline for judging the actions of individuals. This would then mean, as you suggest, that paying a low wage does not count as a case of individual harm.But so, you would say that exploitation, for example, is problematic is not because it is harmful but for some other morally problematic reason. Right?
    Now, Lisa is probably right that the MDWs case is not simply one of exploitation. And I think her suggestion that we can derive individual duties (to offer a better pay, for instance) by thinking about the question not in terms of harm but in terms of benefitting from injustice is one way to go about it. There has been recently quite some work being done on benefitting from injustice (trying to specify the conditions and the implications for individual duties). However, I havent had the time to look into it yet. Do you have any thoughts on that?

  15. Thanks Anya. I think this indeed counts as a good reason. I'm also checking whether the law allows having improved conditions put into a binding contract (see Bruno's point below).

  16. Siba, I guess I have a tendancy to see exploitation more in Marxist terms, as a structural rather than interactional issue. Thus, I think I am a little unsure how to use the idea in these cases. Perhaps I would approach them by conceptualising what is at issue in other ways (e.g., the duties connected with the different kinds of harms and benefits involved).
    The benefiting from injustice argument would be one good example of such an alternative and probably is an important issue running through the case. I guess the difficulty with that approach might be that we would need some argument for directing the unjust benefits one receives back towards, e.g., the particular person one employs. Perhaps what would issue from that argument is a requirement to use the proceeds however could best alter the system (essentially, the instrumental question that Tom poses below), or perhaps even simply towards whatever is the currently gravest injustice. Again, I am not sure. Do you have any clear intuitions here?

  17. Tom, this only holds if you indeed hold a consequentialist position. The case is a good example where some people (Kantians?) might say: keep your hand out of such an unjust practice altogether. If you have already decided that consequentialism is the way to go, the argument becomes simpler indeed. I would have guessed (but really just guesses!) that when you hold the level of political engagement against the practice as a whole constant, going for option (B) is likely to have better consequences.

  18. This is a reply to both Lisa and Tom. I guess that if you – an individual citizen – want to act as a consequentialist, you don't even consider too much option B (or, indeed, the whole issue): you give all the money you'd have spent on domestic help to an efficient charity.

  19. No clear intuitions here either. But I am more inclined to think that the benefits should still be directed at the particular person. There is something odd about directing it at the improvement of the system, especially since there is a direct relation between the employer and the MDW. It is true that the reason one is benefiting is that the system is unjust but it is also the case that one is benefiting from that particular individual having little choice but taking the job. I am inclined to say that by directing the at the person is an act of showing respect to that person.

  20. Thanks Lisa. Just saw that my reply to your comment had not been posted! As I said to Andrew (above), I think indeed thinking about the case in terms of benefiting from injustice could be very helpful. But it also seems that people also have different intuitions as to whether the benefiting argument would entail duties addressed to individuals or to reforming the system.

  21. Tom, I agree with Lisa and Anca that this is indeed a consequentialist position in so far as you think of justice as in terms of outcomes (a certain distribution for instance) and actions as right or wrong to the extent that they maximize this outcome. Is this the right way to understand your comment? I'm wondering whether there is a non-consequentialist version of your argument. For instance one could be a non-consequentialist about demands of justice at the institutional level: for example, (i) what justice demands is a fair distribution of benefits and burdens, and not a maximization of some good. (ii) Individuals have a duty to support and bring about just institutions. Therefore to know what individuals should do in this case we should look at what actions best bring about just institutions. This does not outright exclude (B), for as Anya pointed out employing MDWs under better conditions might create awareness and encourage MDWs to demand better rights eventually leading to a reform of the system.

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