Domestic workers risking death to flee employers
Rights group: Isolation drove dozens of live-in maids to suicide, deadly escape attempts
By Dalila Mahdawi
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
BEIRUT: Leading human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) spoke on Tuesday of “the urgent need” to improve the working and living conditions of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, saying that “at least” 95 women had died between January 1, 2007 and August 15, 2008.
“Domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per week,” said senior HRW researcher Nadim Houry of the epidemic in an official press release. According to HRW data compiled from the records of the Sri Lankan, Ethiopian and Filipino embassies, media reports, and a select number of available police reports, 40 of the 95 deaths were “classified by the embassies of the migrants as suicide.”
Twenty-four deaths were caused by workers “falling from high buildings, often while trying to escape their employers,” and two were murders. However, the figures were not exhaustive “as certain consulates and embassies of migrants did not share their information” with the group, said the press release. HWR also had evidence of eight domestic workers that had survived falls. A labor attache in an unidentified embassy told HRW “Most deaths resulting from a building fall are failed attempts to escape,” added the press release.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Houry said that since the list had been compiled, an additional death had occurred. Nepalese worker Kesradivi Yerepa Mart “hung herself in Dawhet Aramoun in her employer’s house” over the weekend, he said. “What is clear from the figures is that isolation is driving many of these [workers] to suicide,” Khoury added.
The HRW statement quoted a former ambassador as saying, “Don’t call this an embassy. We have become a funeral parlor. People die. Natural deaths, accidents, suicide. When they try to run away, accidents happen.”
Investigations into the deaths of migrant workers were often limited, added the press release. “Police do not always investigate whether the employer mistreated the employee, and when they do, they limit themselves to general questions and accept the employer’s testimony without cross-checking” their information with other concerned parties, such as neighbors or the employee’s family. “In cases where the domestic worker survives a fall, police often interview her without the presence of a translator and generally ignore the motives that led her to escape,” the HRW statement said.
“All those involved – from the Lebanese authorities, to the workers’ embassies, to the employment agencies, to the employers – need to ask themselves what is driving these women to kill themselves or risk their lives trying to escape from high buildings,” said Houry. “It’s unacceptable to have such a high unnatural death rate, and it’s also preventable,” he added.
There are thought to be some 200,000 domestic workers, mostly from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and the Philippines, working in Lebanon. A great number of these work as live-in maids and are often forced to work long hours without a weekly break or sufficient food. A 2006 survey conducted in Lebanon by Dr. Ray Jureidini of 600 migrant domestic workers found that 56 percent worked more than 12 hours a day and 34 percent were not allowed regular time off.
According to a 2005 survey by the non-governmental organization Caritas Lebanon, 90 percent of employers retained the passports and other legal documents of their employees, seriously limiting their freedom of movement. Many workers are also forcibly confined to the house and denied regular, if any, payment of their salaries.
On top of all that, Lebanese labor laws do not protect domestic workers, making them vulnerable to exploitation and human rights abuses.
“The Lebanese are often defensive when talking about the treatment of domestic workers,” Houri said in a telephone interview. “We should move beyond this defensiveness and really think about these high [death] figures and come up with a strategy to improve” the experiences of migrant workers in Lebanon.
“While police reports usually classify cases where domestic workers fall from balconies as suicide, this classification is highly suspect,” said the HWR press release, citing testimonials from survivors who said they were fleeing abuse.
Lebanon is a signatory to the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but has not yet signed the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.
In early 2006, an official steering committee was established to ease the problems of domestic workers. Roland Tawk, a lawyer who often takes on pro-bono cases of incarcerated migrants and a member of the committee, said it had three main goals; 1) to create standardized employment contracts in Arabic, English, French and the native language of the worker; 2) to publish a booklet detailing the rights and obligations of employers and employees, to be distributed at airports, ministries and recruitment agencies, and 3) to formulate a new law for migrant workers.
But according to Houry, “to date” the committee “has failed to deliver any concrete reforms … it’s time for the Lebanese government to show real leadership and actually deliver” these promises, he said.