BEIRUT (Reuters) - Tragic tales of domestic worker abuse in Lebanon are common, but a film showing an Ethiopian maid dragged along a street in Beirut just days before she was found hanged from her bed sheets has rattled Lebanon’s conscience.
The domestic worker industry in Lebanon is vast - foreign maids account for more than five percent of the population - and the sector is plagued by archaic labour laws, inhumane practices and dire wages.
Abuse has been so rampant that Ethiopia, the Philippines, Madagascar and Nepal have banned their citizens from travelling here for employment.
Ethiopian mother of two Alem Dechasa, 33, did not heed her country’s warning and used a Lebanese recruitment agency to travel to the vibrant, coastal capital of Beirut.
On February 24th, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International channel released a video, filmed by an unidentified bystander, of Dechasa lying in the bushes outside the Ethiopian consulate, crying “No, no, no.”
A Lebanese man in the video, later identified by the station as Ali Mahfouz, snatches her off the ground and tries to squeeze her into car. Dechasa screams and squirms, refusing to enter. Mahfouz grabs the Ethiopian by her thick black hair.
“WANDERING OUTSIDE THE CONSULATE”
Ethiopian Consul Asaminew Debelie Bonssa said only minutes earlier he had been approached by Mahfouz, the brother of the head of the recruiting agency that brought Dechasa to Lebanon, who brought the maid to the consulate, complaining that she was mentally ill and needed to be deported.
“We advised (Mahfouz) that she needs to get medical treatment,” the consul told Reuters, sitting in front of Ethiopian and Lebanese flags in his cramped office.
“Many girls come here who have problems. Some of them are young and are not capable of working. Often we just find them wandering outside the consulate,” he said.
Mahfouz agreed to take Dechasa for treatment and left, Bonssa said.
“Nobody expected the following incident to happen,” Bonssa said of the abuse outside his second-floor window, despite admitting that beatings are regularly reported to him.
“We heard a voice and then realised there was a problem with his handling of her.”
Bonssa called the police, who took Mahfouz into custody and escorted the battered girl to hospital.
The consul visited Dechasa in hospital. She was anxious, he said, that she could not pay a debt to the recruitment agency that brought her to Lebanon. Her husband had married another woman and she had taken out a loan to pay her debts.
Four days later, doctors told the consul she had committed suicide. As Bonssa recounted the story, he looked up at the wall of his office and pointed indistinctly as if he was there in Dechasa’s hospital bedroom while she hung from the window.
Dechasa’s case is by no means isolated - Human Rights Watch says, on average, one domestic worker a week in Lebanon either kills herself or falls from a high building to her death.
Efforts to introduce new labour laws have failed to gain momentum. Two labour ministers have proposed measures but changes in government posts and apathy have sidelined the issue.
But the Dechasa case is different. Her abuse was filmed and caused a public outcry, offering a chance to deal with the mistreatment of housemaids here.
The European Union and rights groups urged the country to change its laws to tackle discrimination against migrant workers.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, said the “cruel image” reminded her of migrant women she met in Lebanon during an October visit.
“Women who had been victims of domestic servitude told me they had been under the absolute control of their employers through economic exploitation and suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse.”
Cabinet called an investigation into the case after the footage of Dechasa’s mistreatment was shown on television and Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi said that the Justice and Labour ministries held an emergency meeting on the issue.
Telecommunications Minister Nicholas Sehnaoui tweeted that “we should all come to the defence of the poor Ethiopian girl, victim of this abuse. Actions like these dishonour our country. I am ashamed.”
In Lebanon, migrant workers do not work under labour laws but are sponsored to live in the country by their employers, who apply personally for residency permits. Recruitment agencies, with offices abroad import the women, but many operate with no legal obligation towards the maids.
“The problem of the sponsorship system is that it ties a worker to her employer. This creates a vulnerability for workers and a corresponding burden on employers,” said Rola Abimourched, a project Coordinator at KAFA, a Lebanese charity aimed at preventing violence against women.
The sponsorship system, Abimourched says, means the domestic workers cannot change jobs unless their employer authorises their release.
There is no minimum wage and maids can work long hours, 365 days a year without a break. Many domestic workers say they are locked in the house and have their passports confiscated.
Workers lucky enough to get a few hours off on a Sunday can usually be seen in Beirut’s shopping district of Hamra.
Dolled up in sequin-covered dresses, housemaids dance in a club called Al-Jazz between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., socialising with friends before scurrying home to cook Sunday dinner.
“There is no escape route. If they try to leave their employer, they will face deportation or detention. Employers say they want to protect their investment,” Abimourched said at her small offices in Beirut.
“Some workers don’t want to return because they have paid debts to come to Lebanon, so they stay in an abusive situation.”
Worker abuse is not unique to Lebanon, said Abimourched, pointing to cases in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. But it stands out in a country with a robust civil society which prides itself on being one of the most liberal in the Middle East.
Despite the stereotype, Ethiopian domestic worker Fifi swiftly learned that the Middle East is not always hot and dry when her employer said she would be sleeping on the balcony throughout Lebanon’s rainy winter.
“There was no room so I have been sleeping there. She has my passport and I am not allowed to leave the house,” she said, adding that she had sneaked out while “the lady” was at work.
There is a racist hierarchy among foreign workers here, Lebanese say - with English-speaking Filipinas at the top, costing more than $2,000 to import, and Ethiopians at the bottom.
Carole Meskarm, an Ethiopian who moved to Beirut 10 years ago after meeting her Lebanese husband in Addis Ababa, is hoping the death of Dechasa will not be in vain.
“I hope that the government will now take responsibility (for foreign workers) and I know that many Lebanese are good-hearted people,” said Meskarm, a rights activist who refers to Ethiopian domestic workers as “my girls.”
Many Lebanese love their maids as family. In the Ethiopian consulate lobby, a black woman holds hands with a small, blonde child who looks around the room at her nanny’s compatriots.
And on Palm Sunday, a Christian Lebanese priest pleaded with his parishioners to treat their maids fairly.
“Not all, but some Lebanese look down on housemaids,” said Meskarm. “But for me, when one of my girls say they got a job here as a housemaid, I feel proud. They are working to have a better life.”
Editing by Paul Casciato