Migrant Women Dying on the Job

21 Nov

By Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT, Nov 21 (IPS) – October and November have been bloody months for Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers – over the last five weeks nine women have died. Most deaths have been reported as suicide.

The body of 20-year old Anget R. of Madagascar was found hanging from a rope at her employer’s bedroom door Nov. 11. A newspaper in Madagascar reported the deaths of two other Malagasy women in October. One, identified only as Mampionona, was said to have fallen from the balcony of her employer’s house. The other, identified as Vololona, died after reportedly jumping from the balcony.

Sunit Bholan of Nepal, who was 22, allegedly committed suicide Oct. 8. Ethiopian Kassaye Etsegenet, 23, died after reportedly jumping from the seventh floor of her employer’s house Oct. 15. She left behind a suicide note citing personal reasons.

On Oct. 21, 26-year-old Zeditu Kebede Matente of Ethiopia was found dead, hanging from an olive tree. Two days later 30-year old Saneet Mariam also of Ethiopia died after allegedly falling from the balcony of her employer’s house.

The list goes on: Nepalese national Mina Rokaya, 24, and then Tezeta Yalmoya of Ethiopia, 26 – who also died, it was said, when she fell from the balcony.

“It’s a national tragedy,” Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, tells IPS.

There are an estimated 200,000 women working in Lebanon as live-in housekeepers, cooks and nannies. Most are from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines, though increasing numbers are arriving from Nepal, Madagascar and Bangladesh.

The workers leave their families behind to travel to Lebanon and look after strangers. Many are treated well by their employers; others are less fortunate.

Once in Lebanon, the women may be confined to their employer’s house, and have their passports confiscated and their salaries withheld, increasing their sense of isolation. Many women say they are not allowed out of the house, or get a day off. Complaints of sexual or psychological abuse are not uncommon.

Lebanon’s controversial sponsorship system means that workers are bound to their employers, and face incarceration if they leave. “It’s distressing to note that suicide for some is the only recourse to release from an abusive situation,” says Azfar Khan, senior migration specialist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) regional office for the Arab states.

Police investigations are often inadequate, usually taking into consideration only the employer’s testimony and failing to cross-check it with neighbours or the worker’s friends or family, says Houry. If the woman is lucky enough to survive a suicide attempt, the police almost never provide her with a translator, or ask whether she had been abused. Cases where abusive employers are imprisoned “are the exception, not the rule,” says Houry.

The recent spate of deaths is not the first. A HRW study last year found that at least 95 women had died between Jan. 1, 2007 and Aug. 15, 2008 – a rate of more than one a week.

Aimee, a freelance domestic worker from Madagascar, has been in Lebanon for almost 12 years. As a community leader now, she helps workers in distress by offering a sympathetic ear and advice.

Many of the women she counsels do not receive a regular salary, or have been abused by their employers or recruitment agency officials. Agencies “check the women’s bags for phone numbers or addresses of their consulate,” Aimee tells IPS. Any numbers found are destroyed to prevent the woman seeking help. “How can they ask someone to work so far away from home and treat them like that?”

Lebanon’s growing notoriety as a hotbed for abuse of rights has compelled the governments of Ethiopia and the Philippines to issue bans on their nationals working in Lebanon. But this hasn’t stemmed the tide of migrants entering through third countries. Bans in any case only “transfer the problem from one nationality to another,” says Houry, because recruitment agencies simply look to new countries for women workers.

One reason for suicides is the false expectations recruitment agencies raise among migrant workers. Many women are led to believe they will work as nurses or as other professionals. “A lot of these women are recruited in rural areas – it’s like taking someone and plucking them into a totally different environment,” says Houry.

One Nepalese woman he spoke to after she broke her leg trying to escape her employer’s house said “she saw the snow on the mountains and thought if she could cross the mountain, she’d be in Nepal.”

Lebanese labour laws do not cover domestic workers. Without any legal protection, foreign workers are vulnerable to exploitation.

“The ILO has been pushing for domestic workers to be covered under labour law – not just in Lebanon but in other countries of the region – so that at least institutionally they enjoy protection and have the option to have their grievances addressed in court,” says Khan. “They are workers, so why should the labour law not apply to them?”

Lebanon has signed the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but has yet to move towards signing the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families – a measure that would obligate it to take protection measures for the migrant community.

But more practical measures the Lebanese could take are to create a national hotline for distressed workers and a labour inspection force to monitor the treatment of migrants, says Houry. “More broadly, society has to mobilise. Not everyone is guilty of ill-treatment, but everyone has to feel responsible. People need to start speaking out and express that this is unacceptable.”

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