Tag Archives: migrant domestic workers

Ethiopian woman commits suicide in Lebanon

16 Mar

I recently posted footage showing an Ethiopian migrant woman in Lebanon being dragged and assaulted by a Lebanese man (two at one stage). It is with absolute disgust that I can now tell you that the woman in the video, 33-year-old Alem Dechasa, committed suicide earlier this Wednesday.

Ethiopia’s consul general broke the news to Reuters: ‘”I went to the hospital today and they said that she hanged herself at 6 o’clock this morning,” Asaminew Debelie Bonssa told Reuters. Dechasa had been taken to hospital in order to recover from her forcible abduction.’

According to the Daily Star newspaper, the Ethiopian consulate in Lebanon has now filed a lawsuit against Ali Mahfouz, the man who was videoed beating Dechasa. I can only hope that the suit will actually go somewhere, rather than just sitting in a file on a judge’s desk for years. The Lebanese government has singlehandedly failed in its duty to protect Dechasa and other migrant workers facing abuse. Home countries, in this case Ethiopia, have also failed to properly inform women seeking domestic work abroad of the difficulties they may face.

When a man beats a migrant woman (in public)

10 Mar

Lebanon has been lambasted in the international media in recent years for mistreatment of migrant domestic workers. When a man can beat and drag a woman in public without reprimand from onlookers, you feel Lebanon deserves that notoriety. On Thursday, a local television channel broadcast amateur footage showing a Lebanese man attacking an Ethiopian woman in front of the Ethiopian Embassy. According to Al-Akhbar newspaper, the man was filmed “pulling at the woman’s hair, and dragging her into his car, as she screamed and wailed.”

“The attack occurred in broad daylight, with no bystanders coming to the woman’s aid.” You can watch the incident above.

This disgraceful act comes at a time when the Lebanese parliament is purposefully sabotaging a law to protect women from violence. It only reinforces the urgent need for the enactment, enforcement and respect of laws that criminalize racism, sexism and violence. This man needs to be brought before a court of law, but something tells me it is unlikely to happen.

There are around 200,000 women, mostly from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Madagascar, who work in Lebanon as domestic helpers. While many are treated well, many women report being confined to their employers houses, having their passports confiscated or wages withheld, and can be subject to horrific emotional, physical, sexual and economic violence.

If you want to get involved in migrant rights activism in Lebanon, take a look at the Migrant Worker Task Force website, a volunteer-run initiative to tackle racism and promote integration in Lebanon. Also look at the Anti Racism Movement, which does some great work too. In the year 2012, it is quite appalling that such incidents are allowed to go unpunished.

Filipina worker cuts arms, jumps 7 floors, left on street more than hour

6 Jan

The first Monday of the new year was a grim day here in Lebanon. My friend and fellow journalist Matthew Cassel tweeted about a commotion (warning: graphic photos) near his house in Sanayeh, Beirut. Without even seeing what had happened, he said he already knew: a migrant domestic worker had killed herself. Sadly, this is all too common- since October, at least 30 migrant women (and one man) have reportedly died, mostly by suicide.

Following Cassel’s tip-off, I traveled to the scene, where more than one hour and a half later after jumping to her death, the crumpled body of 28-year old Filipina Theresa Otero Seda was still lying face-down on the pavement, covered with a thin white plastic sheet. It had taken an ambulance around one hour to reach the scene, where a crowd of curious bystanders, four officials from the Philippine Embassy and three policemen had gathered. According to Cassel, the street of the incident wasn’t cordoned off for some time, with cars speeding along the street and almost running over Theresa’s corpse, unaware of what lay under the bag (though of course if they respected the speed limits it would have been clear). One woman driving a school bus apparently stopped almost next to the body to ask for directions. “Someone’s just died here,” she was told. “Huh,” she replied. “So how did you say I am supposed to get to destination X?”

Theresa landed on a slight incline, and her blood had trickled down the pavement. Her right hand poked out from under the sheeting, slightly curled inwards. In full view of the public, the forensic team removed the plastic sheeting and turned her over. Her face had been smashed into an unrecognizable collection of bone and blood: a sickening sight that seems to have been burnt into my mind. Forensics let her lie on the road for a while, taking photos and allowing photojournalists to take a few snaps and giving the public a good look. I felt humiliated for her.

After a while the ambulance staff placed her crumpled, tiny body on a stretcher (without wheels) and carried her towards the entrance of the building, I’m assuming to investigate in a more discreet environment. They reversed the ambulance into the area to try to block off the site. But as they put Theresa on the ground and began to remove her shirt and trousers, I could see everything. I watched with horror as they wiped her face and arms down with Kleenex tissue, and I saw more than I should have been allowed when they turned her over and removed her bra. Again I felt humiliated for her: even in death, she wasn’t treated with due respect . She was practically stripped naked for the world to gawp at.

I managed to speak to her employer, who was standing around at the scene fiddling with his mobile phone. At times he seemed concerned, but at one point he shared a laugh with another man. About what, I don’t know. After telling me the insurance and embassy would take care of everything (aka, repatriating Theresa’s body), he said:  “This is the point- I used to leave my two children with her.” What does that mean, I thought. “So, you won’t be doing that again with future employers?” I asked him. “No way,” was his response.

Unfortunately, it appears Theresa arrived in Lebanon illegally (please excuse the error in first sentence), defying a deployment ban by Manila to work here. “Responsibility will have to be borne by those who brought her here,” Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon Gilberto Asuque told me later, mentioning the Lebanese agency that recruited the young woman.

Theresa arrived two months ago and leaves behind a partner and three young daughters. Even though she had no dignity even in death, I hope she now has the peace she deserved in life. Let her miserable and wholly avoidable demise be the long-awaited wake-up call to the Lebanese authorities that they must protect women like Theresa from the isolation, desperation and, in many cases, the rights abuses that push them over the edge.

Nepal bans migration to Lebanon amid abuse fears

30 Nov

By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Monday, November 30, 2009

BEIRUT: Nepal reintroduced last week a work deployment ban for Lebanon, highlighting growing international concern over the treatment of migrant domestic workers following a wave of suicides over the last two months.
According to a report published Saturday by Nepalese newspaper The Himalayan Times, Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment reintroduced the ban, lifted in May, because of the recent suicides of two female nationals.
Sunit Bholan, 22, allegedly committed suicide October 8, and Mina Rokaya, 24, died in hospital on October 23. A police report seen by Human Rights Watch (HRW) says she died from a heart attack. The women are among at least 10 migrant domestic workers to have died since October.
“The ban … is a necessary emergency step in the face of an alarming rise in the number of suicides by domestic workers in Lebanon,” said Fatima Gomar, editor of Migrant-Rights.org. “There is a growing understanding among Asian governments that they need to step up and bar their citizens from working in countries where their rights are not protected.”
Still, Gomar doubted the ban would halt Nepalese workers travelling to Lebanon illegally.
Nepalese workers, the majority of them women, count for some 17,000 out of approximately 200,000 migrant workers in Lebanon.
While many are treated  with respect by employers, a number encounter abuse. Studies by the American University of Beirut and HRW have shown many women are forcibly confined to their employer’s house, made to work without a day off, subject to sexual or psychological abuse, have their passports confiscated and their salaries withheld. Migrant workers are not protected under Lebanese labor law.

“Passport retention can be a tool to hold workers in exploitative and/or difficult work conditions,” said Azfar Khan, senior migration specialist at the International Labor Organization’s Regional Office for the Arab States. “Despite our best efforts the situation seems to be going from bad to worse.”

The Himalayan Times said the ban was also influenced by the failure of Nepalese recruitment agencies to fulfill promises to establish shelters and to monitor their clients’ treatment by calling them every fortnight. It added nine Nepalese migrants had committed suicide in Lebanon since March this year.

Recruitment agencies often target women in poor rural areas and give misleading information about what to expect abroad, said Nadim Houry, senior researcher at HRW. One Nepalese woman who broke her leg trying to escape her employer, told him “she saw the snow on the mountains and thought if she could cross the mountain, she’d be in Nepal.”
“What is needed is a better management of … the conditions of work and better protection structures,” said Khan. “Institutionally embedding better management regimes is the only way we can ensure a better protection of rights.”
The ban follows on from similar deployment restrictions enforced by Sri Lanka, Philippines, Ethiopia and Madagascar.

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.”

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.