The struggles of Lebanon’s migrant maids

Beirut–On 21 October this year, 26-six year-old Ethiopian migrant worker Zeditu Kebede Matente was found dead hanging from an olive tree in the Lebanese town of Haris.

A few days earlier, 23-year-old Kassaye Etsegenet, also a domestic worker from Ethiopia, died when she reportedly jumped from the seventh floor of a building on Beirut’s busy Charles Helou Avenue.

At least eight other female domestic workers have died here over the past eight weeks. Local media have reported suicide as being the cause of death in six of the cases, while four more deaths have been explained as potential work accidents.

The alarming trend of suicides and suspicious deaths among Lebanon’s community of foreign migrant workers, estimated at around 200,000 people, has caused outrage among human rights groups who say Lebanese authorities need to increase measures to protect these workers from abuse.

“The government needs to explain why so many women who came to Lebanon to work end up leaving the country in coffins,” said Nadim Houry, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in a recent press release issued by the organization. The death toll last month is clear evidence that the government isn’t doing enough to fix the difficult working conditions these women face.”

The high death toll is also pushing local civil society activists into taking action.

On Sunday night, a group of activists organized a panel discussion in Beirut with Houry and leaders from the migrant worker community in Lebanon to discuss the problems facing migrant workers in the country and to brainstorm ideas for a plan of action. Following the discussion, the group held a silent candlelight vigil under a sign denouncing maltreatment of domestic workers at the site of the death of a foreign maid earlier this year.

Lebanon’s migrant worker community mainly consists of women in their 20s and 30s who come from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nepal and Madagascar to earn money for their families back home.

A number of them recounted their personal experiences in Lebanon before the audience on Sunday night, including "Victoria," an Ethiopian community leader in her mid-30s, who said her life was “just dark” when she first started working as a maid in Lebanon 12 years ago.

She described how there was no labor agency there to protect her and how she worked around the clock, without a day off. She felt her employer treated her more like an animal than a human being. At one point she, she even begged her employer to stop treating her “like a dog.”

Houry, who has researched the issue of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon for two years, described a range of problems these workers face, including confiscation of the their passports, withholding of wages, and forced confinement. It is also common for employers to verbally abuse the workers, says Houry, calling them “idiot” and other degrading terms.

Disturbing reports of foreign domestic workers being physically or sexually abused have also surfaced.

But it is hard to obtain accurate statistics on the issue, says Houry, considering that the vast majority of domestic workers can’t go out of the house and tell people about the problems they face.

One credible statistic that should provide some insight into the abuse is the shockingly high number of domestic workers who return to their countries in body bags. Last year, HRW issued a report that said domestic workers were dying at a rate of one per week in Lebanon, most of them from unnatural causes.

Those numbers have not gone down, Houry says. “This is not women dying from old age or sickness. These are women dying from falling from buildings or from suicide.”

Forced confinement, excessive work demands, employer maltreatment, and financial pressures are key factors pushing these workers to commit suicide or risk their lives, says HRW.

The organization interviewed a number of domestic workers who had fallen from balconies but survived. Their testimonies suggest that these women resort to such drastic measures because they are trying to flee abusive employers, harsh working conditions, and escape from a constant forced confinement.

Nepalese national Kamala Nagara injured herself on 20 February, 2008 when she was trying to escape from the balcony. She gave HRW the following account from her hospital bed:

“I was locked in for two days, and they [the employers] did not give me food and water. Then after two days, I wanted to run away. The apartment was on the fifth floor. I tried to go down using cable wires running along the wall of building. The cable broke, and I do not remember what happened afterwards.”

Several factors contribute to the abuse of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Two main reasons appear to be poor labor laws and socio-cultural prejudice.

Domestic workers are not protected by Lebanese labor laws since household work is not considered formal labor here. Hence, no minimum wages apply.

In a bid to ameliorate the situation for maids, the Lebanese government issued in January a uniform contract for all domestic workers, guaranteeing them better working conditions and a day off.

But Houry claims the new contract is not being enforced. He recalls submitting 50 complaints to the Labor Ministry without receiving a single reply.

Racism also appears to be an underlying factor in the abuse.

Arafa Nusr, a woman from Sudan who has been living and working in Lebanon for nearly a decade, explained how her family is harassed on a daily basis. Her children, she told the audience, are often called “chocolate” by their classmates and her husband speaks of racist incidents on almost a daily basis.

As Lebanon geared up for its busy summer season this year, HRW called a number of beach resorts across the country and found that the overwhelming majority of them prohibited maids of African and Asian origin from going in the pool. A number of clubs, however, said they offered special “designated areas” where domestic workers could wait while their employers took a dip and worked on their tans. 

Both civil society groups and foreign embassies are overwhelmed with cases of “runaway maids” and allegations of abuse these days.

In August, the Embassy of the Philippines in Lebanon reportedly had more than 100 women who had fled abuse sleeping on the embassy floor. The catholic NGO CARITAS reports that on average it houses around 40 "runaway maids" in their shelter. The Lebanese rights group KAFA, which provides help to women who suffer domestic abuse, now reportedly has plans to open its center to sexually abused domestic workers.

Dependra Upredy of the Nepalese Consulate in Lebanon told Al-Masry Al-Youm that he can’t even remember the number of complaints he has submitted to the authorities about maltreatment of Nepalese domestic workers. "They are just too many in number, he sighs, "ranging from withholding of wages and overwork to physical and sexual abuse."

Given Lebanon’s record, several countries, including Nepal and Ethiopia recently, enacted bans on migration to Lebanon.

Unfortunately, the bans appear to be pushing underground trade with agencies reportedly sending domestic workers through third countries like Yemen.

Victoria spoke of a wave of Ethiopian women arriving in Lebanon through a route that takes them through Kenya, Qatar, and Syria.

HRW is calling on the Lebanese authorities to investigate the recent deaths of domestic workers and why so many of these workers die.

Upredy emphasized the need to introduce new legislation that offers better protection for domestic workers. “Unless they change the law the situation will remain the same,” he said.

Meanwhile, Victoria believes more public awareness beyond holding informational events for the public.must be raised about the issue. Better education about migrant domestic workers among school children is also a commonly cited need in the activist community.

A few days ago, Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud told the ambassadors of the Philippines, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka that the ministry was planning to undertake measures to make the conditions better for nationals of their countries working in Lebanon. The lives of women depends on the Ministry of the Interior’s success.

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