Tag Archives: Human Rights Watch

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.”

Advertisements

Women worked to death in Lebanon

11 Nov

Dalila Mahdawi guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 10 November 2009 21.00 GMT
They mop floors, take out the rubbish, walk the dog, buy groceries and care for the children, the elderly or disabled. Many a well-to-do and lower middle class Lebanese family relies on migrant domestic workers to take care of their household, but when it comes to providing for these women, not all return the favour.

Migrant domestic workers – women who work as live-in or freelance housekeepers, cooks, and nannies – form a vital presence in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, where women’s increased participation in the workforce has not been accompanied by state-backed social or childcare services.

There are thought to be about 200,000 women, mostly from the Philippines, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, in Lebanon alone. But although they are becoming an intrinsic part of the country’s social fabric, their contribution is often overlooked. While many Lebanese people are careful to ensure their housekeepers are well treated, a significant number abuse them. In extreme cases, migrant domestic workers are killed or kill themselves.

The spate of suicides has become so bad in recent weeks it prompted Lebanese blogger Wissam to launch the grimly named Ethiopian Suicides blog. The website is dedicated to monitoring media reports on the deaths of foreign migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. “I have a dream,” Wissam says. “That migrant domestic workers will be treated humanely in Lebanon and will stop trying to commit or commit[ting] suicide.”

In the last three weeks alone, Wissam notes, four Ethiopian women have died. Lebanese police say the deaths of Kassaye Atsegenet, 24, Saneet Mariam, 30, Matente Kebede Zeditu, 26, Tezeta Yalmiya, 26 were probably suicides. But as human rights activists here will testify, the truth about what happened to them may never be known because police usually only take into account the employer’s testimony. Migrants who survive abuse or suicide attempts are not usually provided with a translator, meaning their version of events often does not get registered with officials.

Sadly, violations against such workers occur throughout the region and in some cases the women end up in slave-like conditions.

Reflecting the concern of sender countries for the wellbeing of their citizens, Ethiopia and the Philippines have placed bans on working in Lebanon and Jordan, but this has not stemmed the flow of illegal migrants smuggled in through third countries. Without the necessary work papers and embassy support, migrant women become even more vulnerable to human rights abuses.

One reason the women are driven to the edge is that, in Lebanon at least, they are not given protection under the country’s labour law. Such exclusion means that those who withhold salaries, confiscate passports, confine their employees to the house or otherwise abuse them, can literally get away with murder. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that five months after parliamentary elections, a Lebanese government is only now being formed.

The campaign to grant migrant domestic workers greater rights in the region has been led by Human Rights Watch. This summer, it contacted Lebanese beach resorts and found that 17 out of 27 private facilities practised some form of discrimination against such women by prohibiting them from swimming in the pool or even the Mediterranean sea.

A study conducted by the organisation last year found that more than one migrant domestic worker was dying in Lebanon each week – mostly from suspected suicide or by falling off a balcony while trying to escape abusive employers. The numbers sent ripples throughout the rights community and resulted in far more sustained local media coverage on the issue of domestic migrant workers. Judging by Wissam’s recent statistics, however, this does not appear to have persuaded the authorities to take sufficient measures to protect their rights.

The embassies of countries that supply migrant workers have a duty to protect their citizens. They could start by offering amnesty and assistance to all illegal workers, increasing their legal protection capabilities and properly informing women at home of their rights and responsibilities while working abroad. Many countries, such as Nepal or Madagascar, which are sending women to the Middle East in increasing numbers, would do well to increase their diplomatic representation from consular level to embassies.

Many migrant workers come to the Middle East seeking a better life for the families they left behind. The Lebanese themselves have a long history of migration and hardship, and should know first-hand the difficulties of living and working in a foreign country. Just as many Lebanese abroad work hard with the hopes of eventually returning home, the Lebanese should ensure that these women get to go back to their countries – alive and well, not in body bags.

NOTE: Since this article was published, the death toll of migrant workers women has risen to eight, according to Human Rights Watch.

Lebanese beach resort discrimination policies uncovered

25 Aug
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
BEIRUT: If you’re a migrant domestic worker or dark-skinned tourist, it’s more than likely you’ll run into difficulty trying to enter one of Lebanon’s pool or beach resorts. This is the sad conclusion reached by international advocacy organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), and confirmed by countless individuals who’ve experienced such racism first hand. 

“Last summer we blind-called resorts to see if there were any restrictions on [the entry or use of facilities by] migrant domestic workers,” Nadim Houry, Senior Researcher at HRW’s Beirut office, told The Daily Star. “We initially called pretending to be a Lebanese family enquiring” about entrance fees and regulations. The results: out of 27 resorts called, 17 said they practiced some form of discrimination against migrants, Houry said. 

Many resorts that do let in migrant workers only do so on if the women are accompanying their employers. Even then, the women are either not allowed to sit in the public area or swim in the pool or sea. Resorts contacted by The Daily Star justified such discrimination by saying they did not wish to upset other guests or that migrants paid less or no entrance fee. As no discrimination law exists in Lebanon, the resorts aren’t doing anything illegal. But their rules conjure up images of Apartheid South Africa or of racial segregation in the United States. “This is clear racism in its most basic element,” Houry said. 

Sylvie, not her real name, is a black Cuban-American who worked for a large international organization in Lebanon. She said she was stunned by the racism she encountered and recalled a story of two black colleagues who were barred entry at a resort because of their color. “If you’re dark-skinned, don’t come to Beirut presuming to find the diversity-friendly cosmopolitanism that the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ moniker seems to imply,” she said. 

Lebanon is home to roughly 200,000 migrant domestic workers, although this figure does not include those who enter the country illegally or Syrian and Egyptian day laborers. Many of these women, who are from such countries as Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Nepal, work as live-in “maids” for employers who respect their rights, but a sizeable number experience violations of their human rights. 

Their problems are compounded by the fact they receive no protection under Lebanese labor laws, leaving them with little access to the justice system. As such, many domestic helpers work long hours without a weekly day off, or for employers that physically or psychologically abuse them.  A 2006 survey of 600 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon by American University of Beirut professor Ray Jureidini found that 56 percent worked over 12 hours a day and 34 percent were not allowed regular time off. 

A similar survey by the NGO Caritas Lebanon in 2005 found 90 percent of employers retained the passports and other legal documents of their domestic worker employees, placing limitations on their freedom of movement. Many workers are also denied regular, if any, payment of their salaries. 
Thus while racist restrictions on migrants at Lebanon’s beach resorts is not the most pressing difficulty faced by these women, as Houry admits, it is symbolic of their predicament. “It’s a very telling problem … a manifestation of the deep-seated racism against migrant workers” in Lebanon, he said. 

 Some commentators have pointed out that the discrimination upheld by some Lebanese according to their perceived views of a person’s socio-economic background. “I think it is different when the women domestic workers … go into these facilities as friends of Lebanese people, [as] opposed to on their own or as workers with a family,” said Zoe Ozveren on a Facebook group set up to support migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. “I personally have been called an Ethiopian girl because of my skin color and treated rudely by a few people, but as soon as they see me with my Lebanese or American friends, the attitude is completely different.” 

Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, Director of the Lebanese American University’s Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, agreed. “I bet if the maid was Swedish or Italian there would be no problem letting her in the swimming pool and in restaurants and at the hairdresser’s, etc,” she said. 

To better inform migrant domestic workers of their rights and responsibilities, the Lebanese government recently introduced an information booklet and a standardized contract available in the women’s native languages, as well as English, French and Arabic, that is also signed by the employer. While the contract grants workers the right to a weekly day off, it has its shortcomings: it does not mention the women’s right to enjoy their day off outside of their employer’s home and does not enforce penalties for agencies or employers who breach the contract. And while Lebanon is party to the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, it has yet to sign the 2003 Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. 

Eradicating racism in Lebanon will not be achieved overnight, but as Houry noted, it must come to an end if the country wants to attract tourists of all backgrounds. “These discriminatory practices are a stain on Lebanon’s efforts to promote itself and its beaches as a welcoming and tolerant place,” he said, urging the Lebanese government to take measures against racism and to formulate an anti-discrimination law.

Lebanon ‘far behind’ in protecting migrant workers

18 Dec
Lebanon 'far behind' in protecting migrant workers
 

Government has ‘not even managed the incremental step of creating a fair employment contract’
By Dalila Mahdawi
Thursday, December 18, 2008

BEIRUT: Lebanon has not done enough in 2008 to address the plight of its population of female migrant workers and falls “far behind” the efforts of other Middle Eastern countries, rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday. “Lebanon lags far behind almost every country in the region when it comes to protecting migrant women’s rights,” said Nisha Varia, deputy director of HRW’s women’s division.

Her comments came on the eve of the eighth annual International Migrants Day on Thursday, designated by the United Nations in 2000 in recognition of the increasing numbers of migrants across the world.

According to estimates by the International Labor Organization, there are approximately 9 million migrants working in the Middle East. Lebanon hosts some 200,000 women domestic workers, mostly from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines, as well as an unconfirmed figure of Syrian and Egyptian male laborers who may number in the hundreds of thousands.

Women migrants in Lebanon work mainly as live-in “maids” and do not enjoy legal protection under the country’s labor laws.

Vulnerable to exploitation and rights abuses, many domestic helpers work long hours without a weekly day off. A 2006 survey of 600 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon by American University of Beirut professor Ray Jureidini 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 conducted by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Caritas Lebanon, some 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 residence where they work and denied regular, if any, payment of their salaries.

According to Caritas project manager Rania Hokayem, the NGO takes on an average of 40 new cases of distressed migrant womens each month.

Like those of many other countries in the Middle East with large migrant worker populations, the Lebanese government has promised to take measures to protect domestic workers, but has yet to show any substantial progress on the matter, HRW said. Lebanon is still not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

An official steering committee was established by the government in 2006 to improve the lives of Lebanon’s migrant workers. The committee is charged, among other things, with creating standard employment contracts written in Arabic, English, French and the native language of the worker, and with formulating a new law for migrant workers. It is also supposed to have published a booklet detailing the rights and obligations of employers and employees, for distribution at airports, ministries and recruitment agencies. But while other Arab countries were “debating concrete legal reforms,” said Varia, “Lebanon has not even managed the incremental step of creating a fair employment contract.”

 

“It is encouraging that [Middle Eastern] governments are finally considering serious reforms, but these proposals mean nothing until the new protections are in place and being enforced,” she said. “Each day of delay leaves migrant domestic workers open to abuses such as unpaid wages, being locked in their workplaces, and to physical and sexual abuse.”

The number of women falling victim to such abuse in Lebanon is alarming. A HRW report issued in August found that “at least” 95 women migrant workers had died between January 1, 2007, and August 15, 2008, a figure equal to more than one woman per week. Of the 95 deaths, 40 were “classified by the embassies of the migrants as suicide,” said HRW, stressing that the list was not exhaustive.

“Most deaths resulting from a building fall are failed attempts to escape” abusive employers, a labor attache told the group.

Since releasing the report, HRW has continued to monitor migrant deaths and has found the figures have remained more or less the same. “Unfortunately we are still seeing approximately the same death rates,” HRW senior researcher Nadim Houry told The Daily Star.

While media coverage on the issue of domestic worker rights had increased in 2008 “both in terms of quantity and quality,” official attitudes had not changed, Houry said.

“The government still does not see the rights of migrant workers as a pressing issue, despite the high death tolls and the extent of human right violations,” he said. “We need to see concrete action.”

The failure to improve the plight of migrant workers has led to Ethiopia and the Philippines banning their citizens from working in Lebanon. The bans were “expressions of frustration,” Houry said, but seem to have had little impact.

Nevertheless, adopting standard employment contracts, prosecuting abusive employers and modifying the labor law were all changes that, with the commitment of the government, could “be achieved before the next parliamentary elections” in 2009, Houry said.

NGO launches campaign against abuse of women

26 Nov

NGO launches campaign against abuse of women
By Dalila Mahdawi

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

 

BEIRUT: Abeer’s story will resonate with thousands of women in Lebanon and millions around the world. Literally trapped in an abusive marriage for 30 years, she was only able to divorce her husband in 2002 after a law giving women the right to file for divorce came into force in Jordan, where she lived.

Her daughter Nisreen, who lives in Beirut, told The Daily Star that although her mother worked as a school teacher, her husband forbade her from accessing her money. “When we moved, my father took all her savings and bought a house in a very remote area. He sold my mother’s car and every morning would lock her in the house and give the key to the shopkeeper who lived nearby,” Nisreen said.

“I think it goes without saying that my father always used to beat her, too” Nisreen added.

Abeer made repeated attempts to leave her husband, but with no money and three children, she had few options. Nisreen said that every time Abeer tried to leave, her father would threaten to take the children away. All requests Abeer made for a divorce were ignored.

Luckily for Abeer, she had a son from a previous marriage who was able to pay for the education of his half-siblings, something Abeer’s husband had refused to do. “When I finished university, my brother bought our mother a house,” said Nisreen. “Also around that time, the new divorce law came into force, so my mother left my father, went to live in her new home and within three months was granted a divorce.” If it hadn’t been for the introduction of legislation allowing women in Jordan to divorce their husbands with greater ease, Abeer would still be in a violent marriage.

After the divorce, said Nisreen, her father married a 16-year-old Bedouin girl. “When I went to visit my dad, I saw he was doing to her exactly what he used to do to my mom,” she said. “I felt that there was nothing I could do for her except be her friend and give her support.”

Marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Tuesday, both men and women across the world campaigned to bring an end to the horrific experiences suffered by the likes of Abeer. Violence against women is “the most pervasive yet least recognized human rights abuse in the world,” the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has said.

According to the World Health Organization, one-third of all women in the world have been forced into sex, beaten, or otherwise abused, usually by someone known to them, during their life. Most women are more likely to die or be disabled due to domestic violence than from disease, war or car accidents.

In Lebanon, KAFA: Enough Violence and Exploitation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to eradicating gender-based violence, child abuse and human trafficking, launched Tuesday the annual “16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence” campaign, along with a number of other NGOs.

During the campaign, which will run until International Human Rights Day on December 10, awareness stalls will be set up at Lebanese universities, shopping malls and supermarkets, and signatures will be collected for a petition calling on the Lebanese government to adopt a family-violence protection bill.

The KAFA-drafted law is needed, said program coordinator Ghida Anani, because “the Lebanese penal code’s view of violence does not take into consideration the intimacy and specificity of family relations.” Lebanese law does not consider marital rape a crime either. “The law we are asking for is preventative,” said Anani. “It would see the establishment of special police stations to deal with family violence, the establishment of a family court, and force the abuser to pay all expenses related to violence, such as medical care,” she added.

The draft law reflected a “huge need” by Lebanese women, said Anani, for legal protection, “considering all the obstacles they face” to escape domestic violence. “Many women suffer from economic dependence, the threat of having their children taken from them and difficulties in obtaining divorce,” she said, adding that most divorce cases in Lebanon were filed “because of abuse.”

Clause 61 of the Ministerial Statement issued in August noted that the government would “work toward implementing Lebanon’s commitment to international conventions and in particular to CEDAW [the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women]. It added that the government would “also seek to address all forms of violence against females.”

The clause was “the first time ever that mention has been made of violence against women with an explicit promise for legal reform,” said KAFA. But Lebanon has yet to ratify CEDAW.

In a statement to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said Tuesday: “We call on people and leaders around the world to join forces to make violence against women history. Let us reaffirm our faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women.”

But with the number of women seeking help from KAFA increasing, the fight to protect women from violence still has a long way to go.

 KAFA’s helpline can be reached on 03 018 019

 ‘A year of missed opportunities’ for migrant workers – human rights watch

BEIRUT: Many migrant and domestic workers continue to face abuse and exploitation in the Middle East and Asia because of a lack of laws protecting their rights, US-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday. In a press release issued to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on Tuesday, HRW said domestic workers have little access to the justice system in the countries where they work, and even when they do complain, “rarely receive redress.”

“Governments need to punish abusive employers through the justice system, and prevent violence by reforming labor and immigration policies that leave these workers at their employers’ mercy,” said the deputy director of HRW’s Women’s Rights division, Nisha Varia.

Hundreds of thousands of African and Asian women work in Lebanon and the Gulf as domestic workers, but most are excluded from the labor laws of those countries. “Employers control a worker’s immigration status and ability to change jobs, and sometimes whether the worker can return home,” said the press release. “Many employers exploit this power to confine domestic workers to the house, withhold pay, and commit other abuses.”

“2008 marked a year of missed opportunities,” said Varia. “While most governments have started to think about some level of reform, many of these discussions have stalled. Providing comprehensive support services to victims of violence, prosecuting abusers, and providing civil remedies are reforms that just can’t wait.”

HRW called for a number of measures to be taken to protect the rights of migrant domestic workers working in the Middle East and Asia, including the abolishment or reform of “immigration-sponsorship policies so that domestic workers’ visas are no longer tied to their employers,” the prosecution of perpetrators of psychological, physical and sexual violence, the creation of support services and legal aid for workers who face abuse, and training for law enforcement officials “on how to respond to domestic workers’ complaints appropriately.”

A HRW report issued in August found that migrants workers in Lebanon were dying at a rate of more than one per week, either as a result of suicide or while trying to escape abusive employers.

Domestic Workers Risking Death to Flee Employers

1 Sep

Domestic workers risking death to flee employers
Rights group: Isolation drove dozens of live-in maids to suicide, deadly escape attempts
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

 

Domestic workers risking death to flee employers
 

 

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.