Conflict & Justice

Labor Lowdown: This week in workers' rights


Members of GetEQUAL, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization, stage a protested on Capitol Hill on May 20, 2010 in Washington, DC, calling on congressional leaders to schedule a vote for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which was passed by the Senate yesterday.


Alex Wong

The US Senate approved a “historic” bill for LGBT workers on Thursday, striking joy and anxiety for those following the Employment Non-Discrimination Act as it moves on to the GOP-dominated House of Representatives. Domestic workers are seeing new rights in Saudi Arabia, as the Saudi Press Agency announced a new law on Saturday, while domestic workers in Sri Lanka prepare to present revised legislation to the country’s labor department. Qatar’s human rights watchdog has revealed that they will be establishing a center for the protection of migrant workers.

Here are some continuing issues to keep in mind:


The US Senate voted 64 to 32 on Thursday to approve the Employment Non-Discrimination Act—a new piece of legislation that bans workplace discrimination against gay and transgender employees.

“This is a really tremendous milestone, a day I will never forget,” said Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly lesbian senator.

The Act will now move to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to face a “steep uphill climb” at the hands of social conservatives.

“One party in one house of Congress should not stand in the way of millions of Americans who want to go to work each day and simply be judged by the job they do,” President Obama said in a statement. “Now is the time to end this kind of discrimination in the workplace, not enable it.”

But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that the legislation is “too broad” and “unnecessary” because the people whom it aims to protect are “already covered under existing federal, state and private workplace protection laws.”


Saudi Arabia on Saturday announced a new law intended to protect domestic workers’ rights, according to the Sauid Press Agency.

Domestic workers will now be entitled to nine hours of rest daily, one day off each week, paid sick leave and may, after two years of employment, claim a paid one-month leave.

The new law also stipulates that it is not within employers’ rights to high risk or degrading tasks, and both workers and employers will be held responsible for violations of mutual contracts.

Employers can be fined $53 or be banned from hiring workers for a year following a first violation. A second violation will call for a $1,333 fine and a three-year ban on hiring employees. A third violation would leave to a permanent ban.

Workers who violate the contract face banishment from Saudi Arabia.


Sri Lanka’s Domestic Workers Union will this month present the country’s labor department with a third draft of its regulation of domestic employees bill, asking the government to for the first time introduce comprehensive employment protection for domestic workers.

The union has been lobbying for the bill for some time, and started a campaign in June that has so far collected over 7,000 signatures.

“The plantations are wombs of inequality and domestic work,” Menaha Kandasamy, a feminist activist who established the Red Flag Women’s Movement, told the Guardian.

The majority Tamil workforce, she said, has high rates of illiteracy and “limited economic alternatives.”

The union has also asked British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague to boycott the Commonwealth Summit, being held in Sri Lanka this month.


Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee has announced plans to establish a center for migrant workers’ rights, following recent revelations of deadly working conditions.

The new center will aim to hear and address complaints regarding workplace issues, and engage workers in order to build a trusting relationship.

“Basically, we would like to know the issues facing these workers and raise awareness about their rights,” the National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) said in a statement.

One of the first steps the government should take, Hala al Ali, the Committee’s legal expert said, is to increase the number of labor inspectors in the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.

Al Ali spoke at a workers’ workshop the National Human Rights Committee held to raise awareness among workers about their rights and responsibilities.

“We are thinking of ways to stop this exploitation at source. An effective way to do this is to raise adequate awareness among workers before they are recruited.”