Migrant Domestic Slaves in Lebanon Worked to Death

"To even the toughest among us - don’t you know - that would be too much? Isn’t it just enough, how hard it is to live? Isn’t hard enough, just to make it through the day?" -- Sade in her song, 'The Immigrant' on the Lovers Rock album

When I listen to this song I think about all the countless individuals who are forced daily into a new location. An unfamiliar place.

Have you ever been that person?

In many ways, all of us have. By re-locating to a new neighbourhood or country we find ourselves outsiders.

Imagine this magnified with the reality of having your passport confiscated, no one or anyplace to turn to when the abuse escalates or finding yourself trapped to the point that the only way out is death.

Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon

This is the reality for many migrant workers. Relinquishing their family, country and lives in search of greener pastures. Victims of poverty, injustice, and a government that has made them believe that their only hope of feeding their children is by volunteering to be a slave.

Currently, there are an estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. According to a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, every week a domestic worker loses her life.

A 2010 HRW survey reports that:
  • 7-11% of domestic workers in Lebanon experience sexual harassment
  • 14-33% of maids in Lebanon are physically abused by employers
  • 40% of maids in Lebanon don't have a private room
  • 31-80% of domestic workers in Lebanon can't leave their employer's house alone
  • 34% of maids in Lebanon have no day off

Last month, Nepalese migrant domestic worker, Lila, was murdered and sadly, last week yet another silent voice became a statistic.

Suicide of Ethiopian Migrant Domestic Worker Alem Dechasa

While undergoing care at the Psychiatrique de la Croix hospital in Lebanon, thirty-three year old Alem Dechasa committed suicide. Days before, she decided that the only way to escape daily mistreatment, after she was publicly beaten by here employer Ali Mahfouz in front of the Ethiopian consulate.

The Guardian writes:
Dechasa, 33, left her hometown of Burayu, a poor suburb of Addis Ababa, in search of work overseas. According to Asaminew Debelie Bonssa, Ethiopia's consul general in Lebanon, her husband had left her for another woman, and had taken custody of her three children.

"There are not many ways to earn a living where she is from. She was not in a good situation there, and left to try to make her and her family's life better," Bonnsa said. "She arrived here about two months ago via Sudan. The owners of the agency who brought her here came to us and said she was mentally unstable, and that they wanted her to be sent her back. When I saw her in hospital, she was very upset about this.

"She had borrowed money from a neighbour in Ethiopia to pay to come to Lebanon, and she came here with the ambition to send money back to her family. She was worried if she was sent home now she would not have been able to repay her neighbour."
Here's a video of the incident:

The incident spark outrage amongst the Ethiopian community. What's significant about Alem's case is that the virility of the video highlighted the reality of what many women in face Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.

In an open letter to the Ethiopian Consul in Lebanon, Tadeos Anteneh writes:
Dear Asaminew Debele,

The tragic and untimely death of fellow Ethiopian and mother of two Alem Dechasa has once again blown the cover masking the utter and complete lack of concern your government continues to show to the plight of Ethiopian women across the Arab world.

Alem did not have to die at this point in time nor indeed in this appalling way if you had only accorded her the support she desperately came to seek from you as her official representative in that country. Your unspeakable failure to act means an innocent hard working Ethiopian woman was savagely beaten and hounded around by a gang of Lebanese thugs outside your consulate until she was eventually taken to die in circumstances not conclusively known even to you the Ethiopian head of mission.

Sir, the primary duty of any diplomat is to provide protection and support to fellow citizens in a foreign country in which he/she is sent to represent his/her country. However, either because of your incompetence , lack of compassion and concern or perhaps total disregard to care for those you have been delegated to represent, you have stood aside when tens of Ethiopian women were subjected to some of the worst inhuman treatment at the hands of their employers.

How could you live another day knowing you could have prevented Alem's unacceptable death if you had acted promptly by intervening to stop her being overpowered and bundled away to her death in the back of a car ? Could you not have escalated Alem's daylight abduction and beating to the highest authorities in the land ? How much more desperate did this have to be for you to put a halt to your other duties and personally get involved in seeking an amicable outcome to whatever dispute she might have had with the employer/thug who abused her in front of the world ? I accept you could not have anticipated the death of Alem but surely you could have been more proactive in dealing with a situation so critical as this has been from the moment the Ethiopian young lady run away to your consulate.

You have told the Lebanese media how shocked you are about Alem's death. Surely the shock you have felt must be the result of your regret for failing to have done more to come to her aid.

One wonders just why the government which you represent has failed for so long to tackle this most urgent of problems for Ethiopian women in the Middle East. How long will this continue ? Could a more stringent and tighter regulation not help end this unspeakable misery ?

More specifically, as the head of the Ethiopian mission what will you do now to help bring the attackers of Alem to justice ? Or will you just brush this serious incident aside once public interest wanes in the days and weeks ahead ? Will you investigate what happened to Alem right from the start ? Better still, will you publish your investigation or whatever report you commission to ascertain the facts of her case including the facts surrounding her untimely death ? As I am sure you will accept , the circumstances of her death are mysterious. And only an independent Ethiopian-led investigation will deliver a result acceptable to many if not most people following this entire episode.

The lessons to be learnt from the circumstances of Alem's death are of wide reaching significance to the thousands of Ethiopian women scattered around the Arab world to make a living for themselves and their families back in our country. Hence, Ethiopians will be watching to see what you will do to follow up on Alem's case and explore ways to improve the wider problem of the general plight of young women in Lebanon and across the Middle East.

Sincerely yours,
Tadeos Anteneh

The Struggle to End Slavery in Lebanon

These women working as maids in Lebanon had become family to me. I used to be a house cleaner so naturally this issue would hit a sore spot.

Exposure to the horrors many workers are subjected to came when I decided to work on an eco farm. There I met three workers from Sri Lanka. I worked in the fields and kitchen with them. Many of the Lebanese visiting the area naturally thought I was a domestic worker too.

I knew the owner but one day I couldn't take it anymore and I gave him a piece of my mind. I started speaking out publicly, writing about the issue as a journalist and creating several campaigns. This made me a target.

As a result, I was subjected to confiscation of my passport, no support from my embassy, countless attempts on my life and rumours spread throughout the country that I was either a drug dealer or an Ethiopian spy.

Didn't matter. I'm not an activist. I'm a humanist. I believe that the very fact that we exist as humans on this earth entitles us to nature's rights. After all, we are citizens of the earth.

Even I had bouts with suicidal thoughts during my time in Lebanon. The reality of being trapped all alone while faced with abuse, sexual insults, long hours with little to no pay and a shattered dream is bound to drive many to the brink of death.

However, it is my hope that individuals rise up and start demanding that their governments create decent work at home. Whether we realize it or not this is the modern day slave trade.

Policies like the UN trafficking report or the TIP are failing millions. Which draws the question, when did our lives as human beings become so cheap?