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A Range of Abuses

The Invisible Deaths of Lebanon’s Migrant Domestic Workers

by ALESSANDRA BAJEC

Last 12th June, Nahar newspaper reported that an Ethiopian maid was found dead at her employer’s house, in Koura, Lebanon, strangled with a hair tie. The news was reported in only one sentence.

Earlier in May, hundreds of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon raised their voices against the daily abuse of their rights at an annual workers’ day event, calling for better legal protection for the more than 200,000 domestic workers in Lebanon.

Migrant domestic workers generally get very little protection from the Lebanese government and remain under-reported in the media, while the deaths of these workers are rarely discussed in the news. Despite the high incidence, domestic workers’ deaths are not investigated or documented by the Lebanese authorities.

“A range of abuses are experienced by migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. These may include verbal, physical and sexual abuse, as well as poor working conditions and violations of labour rights,” Zeina Mezher, project manager at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), said.

The majority of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon are women. Most work as live-in maids – cooking, cleaning and taking care of children and the elderly – and primarily come from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. An estimated 85,000 of these workers may not have valid residence permits. NGOs estimate that 75 percent of them have their passports confiscated by their employers or recruitment agencies.

Workers are subjected to restrictive immigration rules based on Lebanon’s kefala sponsorship system, which bounds a worker to a single employer. This system gives employers almost unchecked control putting workers at risk of abuse.

Omar Harfouch, who coordinates computer classes for migrants at grassroots organisation Migrant Work Task Force (MWTF) explained that, under the terms of the sponsorship system, employers are fully responsible for their domestic workers until the day they decide to sign off their sponsorship and a new employer takes over as sponsor. ‘’That very much resembles slavery or human trafficking,’’ he said.

Migrant domestic workers are excluded from the Lebanese labour law, not guaranteed freedom of movement and are not protected by minimum wage standards.

‘’Because you’re a domestic worker and a foreigner, nobody cares‘’, said Bandaline Binyiro, active supporter of migrant domestic workers, ‘’We don’t get any legal support’’.

According to Mezher, without a legal framework in place, the kefala system allows room for exploitation and abuse, including the non-payment of wages, long work hours, witholding passports, and violence. “This is a very recurring problem putting huge financial pressure on the domestic worker, given that she’s expected to send home part of her little earnings every month,” she added.

OSF’s study revealed that migrant workers are paid monthly wages as low as $100. Two-thirds work eleven-hours each day.

Although workers have the right to one day off each week, many can’t leave their workplace. At least one in four migrant domestic workers is locked in the employer’s house during their time off. 

Based on a study released by Open Society Foundations (OSF) in February of this year, a quarter of domestic migrant workers who live with their employers were forbidden from leaving the house on their off-time.

Many domestic workers are unaware of their rights because employment contracts are often in Arabic and/or English, which many cannot read. “We’re asked to sign contracts that we can’t even read,” said Garganta, domestic worker from the Philippines, “We finally don’t know what we’ve signed for.”

Moreover, migrant workers are asked to sign a contract in their home country and later, upon arrival in Lebanon, they are forced to sign another contract, usually with less favourable terms and conditions.

In 2008, Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that one domestic worker died every week in Lebanon. Although many of these deaths were identified as suicides, HRW found that several were caused by workers falling from tall buildings, “often while trying to escape their employers”.

Lebanese NGO KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation wrote small stories based on nine cases of suicide, reported in local newspapers that took place in Lebanon during August 2010.

One of the stories read:I died in Sahil Alma in August 2010. In the news, they did not mention my name. They said I fell from the 6th floor while trying to run away from my employer’s house” (unknown name).

A range of abuses are experienced by migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. These may include verbal, physical and sexual abuse, as well as poor working conditions and violations of labour rights. Workers frequently report excessive working hours, delayed or non-payment of wages.

‘’This is a very recurring problem putting huge financial pressure on the domestic worker, given that she’s expected to send home part of her little earnings every month’’, Mezher noted.

Mezher explained that many factors leading to workers’ deaths are often not properly handled. ”You need to investigate over issues like whether the worker had been mistreated or sexually abused prior to death, whether she had been deprived of food or her salary, if she became mentally ill at the workplace,” Mezher said.

Marivic Garganta, Filipina, recently handled the case of Lilibeth Dumlao who died in hospital few months ago. She had stayed in Lebanon without papers for three years, freelancing as a domestic worker.

‘’Although Lilibeth had stated she was sick from high blood pressure, the doctor later found part of her head badly injured’’, Garganta said, ‘’No one could tell more about her case’’. Madagascar community leader Emme Razanajay, dedicated to supporting domestic workers for 15 years, mentioned the case of a lady from Madagascar who died from a kidney disease a year ago, after working in the country for five years illegally.

‘’She was already sick while in employment’’, Razanajay commented, ‘’Nobody explained how things really went.’’

About seven years ago, Garganta lost her friend Rosemary Corneja. Rosemary died only two weeks later after she was taken to hospital. She had blood cancer without knowing it. ‘’Her employer was not getting her checked up nor giving her medicines, no one realized she had the disease’’, Garganta said.

Lebanon voted in favour of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention No. 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, adopted in June 2011. The country, however, has yet to take steps to ratify the treaty or bring itself into compliance.

The ILO Convention sets the global minimum rights of domestic workers worldwide. Key elements of the convention require governments to provide domestic workers with labour protections equivalent to those of other workers, to monitor recruitment agencies rigorously, and to provide protection against violence.  

As a result of OCHR and ILO’s consultation efforts, the Code of Conduct providing guidance to recruiting agencies on promoting and protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon was launched in June 2013.

The Lebanese government also announced efforts to adopt and implement a draft law to combat widespread abuses. A recent statement by the office of Labour Minister Sejaan Azzi said: “The draft law was referred to the concerned authority to complete the necessary legal procedures and enter it into force. This draft law takes into account the relevant international convention and recommendation; it also protects and preserves in parallel the rights of both parties (the employers and the male or female workers).”

Despite these government steps, human rights groups say major problems persist, as domestic workers are often too afraid to report abuse in fear of losing their work contract and visa, which puts them at risk of imprisonment or deportation.

MWTF’s coordinator thinks most domestic workers’ deaths are not documented by the authorities because they’re automatically labelled ‘suicides’. ‘’Most of the time, the case is closed without a proper investigation’’, Harfouch stated, ‘’Nobody looks into the causes of the death, if there was blackmail or murder behind the death, or whether it was due to workplace safety hazards’’.

Harfouch noted that while the Lebanese media has recently been shedding light on these deaths the whole issue is still largely overlooked. “More cases are being talked about, yet we don’t see regular reports in the news. The issue is still under-estimated by the media,” he said.

There are challenges in documenting deaths of migrant domestic workers. Harfouch mentioned accessing the workers is one major problem as most are locked inside houses, and contacting them by phone can be difficult. Stories usually come out through relatives, friends or NGOs.

“Civil society organizations should make more efforts to reach out to those women”, MWTF’s coordinator added.

In recent years, some countries have banned their citizens from working in Lebanon due to lack of legal protection and chronic human rights abuses, among them Philippines, Ethiopia, Nepal, Madagascar and most recently Kenya.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. Between 2010 and 2011, she lived in Palestine. Her articles have appeared in the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, IRIN and The Majalla among others. She can be followed on Twitter at @AlessandraBajec