[A-List] LEBANON: Broken Bones and Body Bags: Horrors Facing Ethiopian Domestic Workers
critical.montages at gmail.com
Wed Nov 12 02:46:16 MST 2008
Broken bones and body bags: horrors facing Ethiopian domestic workers
By Tania Tabar
Special to The Daily Star
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
BEIRUT: At the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut, a poster declares
"Ethiopia: 13 weeks of sunshine" as two officials sit at their desks.
The three chairs in the waiting room are usually occupied these days:
In just one recent week, the mission heard of one Ethiopian domestic
worker who died a suspicious death and another who is in hospital with
both legs broken, possibly paralyzed, and can only communicate by
blinking her eyes.
The previous week, a woman walked in shaking. When the social officer
asked her what was wrong, she replied that her "Madame" - her employer
- threatened her with a knife.
It has long been the case that women from impoverished countries like
Ethiopia come to Lebanon to work, that many encounter abuse and even
violence, and that most find they have nowhere to turn.
Elinore Molla and Victoria Andarge, two Ethiopian women who are
involved with the Full Gospel Church in Beirut, have turned an
apartment they are renting into a makeshift sanctuary for women who
flee their employers after facing some sort of abuse.
"The consulate doesn't have a resting room. Women sleep under the cars
[outside the consulate], so many guys come and harass them. They are
only 20 years old with a future and destiny. I take the decision in my
life to suffer for them," said Molla, 27, who is originally from
Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.
Molla first found out about the women sleeping underneath the cars
about a year ago.
"When I was walking I saw the girls," she recalls. "I found four girls
... I was shocked. They said, 'help us.'"
She took them into her home, which today houses about two dozen women
at any given time. "I'm Christian, I'm a believer," she told The Daily
Star. "Everyday I see my people and my nation, with no one to take
responsibility. The idea comes from God - helping protect someone who
was abused. I ask the girl when I take her to my home: 'What's the
problem with your sponsor?' And she says, 'so many things.'"
The head of the social affairs office at the Ethiopian Consulate, who
preferred not to be identified by name, confirmed that women continue
to sleep under cars near the mission until this day.
There are several problems with the situation of domestic migrant
workers in Lebanon, she explained: "It is not only Ethiopian workers
facing problems, but because women from other countries stopped
signing contracts, the number of Ethiopians increased."
There is currently no reliable data, but the consulate estimates the
number of Ethiopian workers in Lebanon to be between 40,000 and
50,000, a substantial increase since the number of women coming from
Sri Lanka and the Philippines dropped off following the 2006 war with
Israel - and attendant stories of abuse and neglect. The Ethiopian
government officially barred its own women from coming to Lebanon
earlier this year, but many are now traveling here through third
The head of the consular section, who also did not want to be named,
said that problems frequently begin from the day of arrival. Many
sponsors do not adhere to the terms of the contracts, he explained,
such as duration, remuneration, and hours of work expected.
What is even more problematic, he added, is when agencies do not take
responsibility when a woman files a complaint, paving the way for a
volatile relationship between the workers and their employers.
"We are facing a lot of problems," he said. "One problem is by the
housemaids, second by the sponsors. Since we are foreigners to this
country we have a different culture, so from the beginning it is
difficult for her to get accustomed.
"But I want to turn to the sponsors' problem," he added. "There are a
lot of problems from sponsors, they don't pay salaries on time, they
treat them aggressively, they don't get enough food, and they don't
According to the consulate, some 70 percent of employers who employ
Ethiopians don't pay their employees on a monthly basis.
"Sometimes they close the balcony and make them sleep on the floor,"
added the head of the social affairs office, "and they beat her to
make her understand. That's why she becomes aggressive toward
agencies, the consulate and herself."
Most troubling of all, the mission says it has been sending a record
number of corpses back to Ethiopia.
The consulate estimates that 150 women have died in a little more than
a year, and there is no accountability.
In one recent case, Mekdes Tesfaye Tefera's corpse was found with a
noose around her neck. But the consulate has doubts that this was a
self-inflicted death and has filed a police report.
"They always say, 'she killed herself,'" the social affairs officer said.
In the case of Zebiba Kedr, who is currently hospitalized, the
consulate is working on having charges laid against the woman for whom
she was working. The employers have stated that Kedr fell from the
12th floor of their building, but the head of the consular section
said that when he went to see her in the hospital and asked her
"Madame" had pushed her, she indicated 'yes' by blinking her eyes.
Stories like these make the unofficial shelter run by Molla and
Andarge even more essential. Andarge said the agencies were the main
problem, accusing them of "playing a game" with people's lives. The
government needs to get involved, she added, and make sure the
agencies take responsibility for the women and how they are treated.
The consulate representatives said they had an agreement with all the
agencies that said the latter were to be responsible for the women
they bring to Lebanon, and that this is why mission does not have a
The nongovernmental organization Caritas offers a safehouse for
workers who are flee their employers' homes, but Molla said that these
spaces are usually reserved for those who are very sick or have
Molla is one of the lucky ones. She came to Lebanon when she was 17
years old and says she has always been well treated by her employer.
"She is like my mom, she is Lebanese, and she supports me. I love
her," Molla told The Daily Star.
But since she regards her own experience as the exception rather than
the rule, she discourages other Ethiopian women from traveling to
Lebanon for work - a process which she described as getting easier by
"The Lebanese name is collapsing everywhere," she said, explaining
that in Addis Ababa, Lebanon's reputation is causing fewer and fewer
would-be migrant workers to sign up.
To compensate, she added, the recruiters have started concentrating on
women from remote villages.
Molla said she tells women in Ethiopia "what is going on" in Lebanon,
"and that it's better to stay in your country, because you still have
hopes there. Here there are no hopes."
Nonetheless, a young woman now staying at the makeshift safehouse said
she would like to stay here and support her family back home - if her
employers here were to treat her well.
Andarge believes there is hope to change the situation and has already
noticed changes in public opinion and awareness. New York-based Human
Rights Watch recently conducted a hard-hitting campaign on the plight
of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, and last month the American
University of Beirut hosted a conference and roundtable discussion on
the issue. Some of the students were appalled at what they heard, she
said, and their reaction was a pleasant "surprise."
"It will be changed," Andarge said with tears in her eyes. "We just
need strong people."
Lebanon: Migrant Domestic Workers Dying Every Week
Most Deaths From Suicides or in Botched Escapes
(Beirut, August 26, 2008) – The high death toll of migrant domestic
workers in Lebanon, from unnatural causes, shows the urgent need to
improve their working conditions, Human Rights Watch said today. Human
Rights Watch called on the official steering committee tasked with
improving the situation of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon to
investigate the root causes of these deaths and develop a concrete
national strategy to reduce them.
Since January 2007, at least 95 migrant domestic workers have died in
Lebanon. Of these 95 deaths, 40 are classified by the embassies of the
migrants as suicide, while 24 others were caused by workers falling
from high buildings, often while trying to escape their employers. By
contrast, only 14 domestic workers died because of diseases or health
issues. (For basic details of cases compiled by Human Rights Watch,
please visit: http://www.hrw.org/pub/2008/women/Lebanon.MDW.Annex.082608.pdf.)
"Domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per
week," said Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "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."
Interviews with embassy officials and friends of domestic workers who
committed suicide suggest that forced confinement, excessive work
demands, employer abuse, and financial pressures are key factors
pushing these women to kill themselves or risk their lives. An
official at the Philippines embassy told Human Rights Watch about one
Filipina worker whose employers accused her of stealing a piece of
jewelry. The employers beat her and locked her inside the house, he
said. She ended up committing suicide.
Other suicide cases point to financial pressures faced by these
workers who are not entitled to the minimum wage in Lebanon. Sarada
Phuyal, a Nepalese national, hung herself on March 17, 2008. Human
Rights Watch interviewed another Nepalese who worked in the same
household: "Sarada was depressed because she had a lot of pressure
from her husband to send money. Her husband was very sick. The money
she was sending was all spent on medical costs. She was very upset
about this because she wanted the money for her children to go to
"These suicides are linked to the isolation and the difficult working
conditions these workers face in Lebanon," Houry said. "While the
Lebanese authorities cannot guarantee these women happiness, they
should guarantee them the right to move freely, to work in decent
conditions, to communicate with their friends and families, and to
earn a living wage."
A 2006 survey of 600 domestic workers in Lebanon conducted by Dr. Ray
Jureidini, of the American University in Cairo, found 31 percent of
the women saying that their employers did not allow them to leave the
Many domestic workers who find themselves locked up attempt to escape
through balconies or windows. Since January 2007, Human Rights Watch
has compiled 24 cases of domestic workers who died as a result of
falling from a high-story building. In eight additional cases, the
worker injured herself but survived the fall.
"Many domestic workers are literally being driven to jump from
balconies to escape their forced confinement," Houry said.
While police reports usually classify cases where domestic workers
fall from balconies as suicide, this classification is highly suspect.
Human Rights Watch interviewed two domestic workers who had fallen
from balconies but survived the fall. In both cases, they stated that
they were trying to flee employers who either had mistreated them or
locked them in. Kamala Nagari, a Nepalese national who injured herself
on February 20, 2008 while trying to escape, told Human Rights Watch
from her hospital bed:
"I was locked in for two days, and they [the employers] did not give
me food and water. Then after two days, I wanted to run away. The
apartment was on the fifth floor. I tried to go down using cable wires
running along the wall of building. The cable broke, and I do not
remember what happened afterwards."
Officials working at the migrants' embassies echoed this finding:
"Most deaths resulting from a building fall are failed attempts to
escape," a labor attaché told Human Rights Watch. A former ambassador
put it more bluntly: "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."
Lebanese police generally investigate death cases but interviews with
lawyers representing domestic workers and officials working at the
migrants' embassies as well as a review of investigators' notes in
three separate police investigations reveal many flaws. First, the
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
statements with information from neighbors or the family of the
domestic worker. Second, 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.
"When employers lock someone up inside a home, they are committing a
crime and the police should treat it as such," Houry said.
Human Rights Watch urged the official steering committee tasked with
improving the status of domestic workers, which includes members of
various relevant ministries, the police force and certain
international organizations and NGOs, to begin tracking cases of such
deaths and injuries, to ensure that the police properly investigate
them, and to develop a concrete strategy to reduce the deaths of
domestic workers. This strategy should include combating the practice
of forced confinement and improving working conditions and labor law
Human Rights Watch also urged governments of migrants' countries to
increase the services at their embassies and diplomatic missions in
Lebanon by providing counseling and shelter for workers in distress.
Middle East/North Africa: Treat Domestic Workers Fairly This Ramadan
Employers Should Reflect on Responsibilities to Respect Rights of
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In Lebanon, which employs an estimated 200,000 domestic workers,
primarily from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Ethiopia, the most
common complaints made by domestic workers include non-payment or
delayed payment of their wages, forced confinement to the workplace,
no time off, and verbal, as well as physical, abuse. According to a
2006 survey of 600 migrant domestic workers conducted by Dr. Ray
Jureidini of the American University of Cairo, 56 percent said they
work more than 12 hours a day and 34 percent have no regular time off.
These difficult work conditions have had deadly consequences as
recently released research by Human Rights Watch shows that migrant
domestic workers in Lebanon are dying at a rate of one per week, most
often from suicide and during failed attempts to escape from their
Saudi households employ an estimated 1.5 million domestic workers,
primarily from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal. While
no reliable statistics exist on the exact number of abuse cases, the
Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs and the embassies of labor-sending
countries shelter thousands of domestic workers with complaints
against their employers or recruiters each year. Excessive workload
and unpaid wages, for periods ranging from a few months to 10 years,
are among the most common complaints. The kingdom's Labor Law excludes
domestic workers, denying them rights guaranteed to other workers,
such as a weekly rest day and overtime pay. Many domestic workers must
work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Some domestic workers face
imprisonment or lashings for spurious charges of theft, adultery, or
In the United Arab Emirates, in-house Sri Lankan domestic workers who
live with their employers almost always are paid fixed monthly
salaries without payment for overtime. Many migrant domestic workers
face workplace abuses such as non-payment or underpayment of wages;
wage exploitation; forced confinement in the workplace; excessively
long working hours; and no rest days.
In Morocco, child domestic workers as young as five or six routinely
toil in private homes one hundred or more hours per week without rest
breaks or days off. Their employers frequently abuse them physically
and verbally, deny them an education, and sometimes even deny them
adequate food and medical care. Some girls also suffer sexual
harassment by employers or employers' family members. Abused and
isolated from family and peers, too many child domestics suffer
lasting physical and psychological harm.
More information about the A-List