BEIRUT: When Alem Dechasa-Desisa hung herself by her bed sheets in a psychiatric hospital last March, she heightened a fury that had already been sparked when a video of the Ethiopian domestic worker’s beating outside her consulate went viral. Nearly a year later, the first hearing in the case against the man who dragged her into his car while she screamed is at hand. On Feb. 11, Ali Mahfouz or his lawyer is expected in court to face charges that he contributed to 33-year-old Dechasa-Desisa’s death.
Much public anger after the suicide was directed at Mahfouz, who was connected to Dechasa-Desisa’s employment agency and claimed she was mentally ill. Dechasa-Desisa became the very image of the abused maid in a system where activists long argued maltreatment was rife. International attention also focused on the plight of the some 200,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon; non-governmental organizations demanded change and politicians promised action.
But just as justice has been sluggish in the case against Mahfouz – this due in part to difficulty transferring power of attorney from Dechasa-Desisa’s parents to lawyers at the Caritas Migrants Center – the pace of the systemic change that seemed nearly possible last year has also been slow.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, who at the time said he had tasked the security forces to look into an incident he called a “horrible scene” that reflects poorly on Lebanon’s image, told The Daily Star he is no longer following up on Dechasa-Desisa’s case because “every day a million things come up.”
Labor Minister Salim Jreissati was new to his post when Dechasa-Desisa died, and has since taken no visible action on proposals for a new labor law that would include foreign workers.
Advocates argue the current sponsorship system, which ties residency to employers, encourages mistreatment and makes it difficult for workers to seek help if they need it.
Jreissati told The Daily Star that his ministry is in fact working to improve the conditions of domestic workers, saying: “There is no more joking around, and serious work has begun.”
He reported that the ministry has signed memorandums of understanding with the Philippines India, Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Ethiopia – all with different conditions – that require basic rights for workers such as weekly breaks, private rooms, a minimum wage, and freedom from physical or emotional violence.
But Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Right Watch’s Beirut office, believes such bilateral agreements are not the way to tackle a broken system.
He questioned whether and how they would be implemented, and noted that domestic workers are already protected from violence under the penal code.
“I’d rather they implement the penal code, which has stronger force,” he said. “The memos are just a way to try to get countries to stop bans [on workers coming to Lebanon].”
Several countries, including Ethiopia, have banned their nationals from working as domestics in Lebanon because of allegations of mistreatment. Dechasa-Desisa came despite her country’s prohibition, however, and many other women do too.
There has long been talk of a team of inspectors who would, under the Labor Ministry’s remit, inspect the employment agencies that bring people into the country to work. In principle, Zeina Mezher of the International Labor Organization said these inspectors already exist. But they have yet to be trained, and Mezher, the project coordinator for the ILO’s program Promoting the Rights of Women Domestic Workers, said this should happen no later than this May.
Mezher also said the ILO helped design a standard contract that is in line with the ILO’s Convention on Domestic Workers. She said the contract is now “with the ministry;” Jreissati said he is working on it.
Also in the design phase at the ILO is a program that would employ social workers at the Ministry Labor who would interact with workers if needed. Mezher said that since Dechasa-Desisa’s death, the ministry has shown it is “more and more keen to do something, despite the difficulties [it faces].”
According to Hicham Borji, president of the union of workers’ recruitment agencies, the episode has prompted agencies to seek out advice on how to treat their workers.
“I believe maybe we have the chance now to avoid what happened to her, from the beginning,” he said. The syndicate has adopted a new code of conduct, drawn up with the ILO’s help.
Mezher sees the extensive media coverage that surrounded Dechasa-Desisa’s death as a positive.
“It’s unfortunate that it took a tragic event such as what happened to Alem for the media to become interested,” she said, adding that since her death coverage has shifted to labor standards and violations before gruesome events take place.
However, women are still dying. Since Alem’s death five domestic workers have apparently taken their own lives, likely a vast undercount given that embassies keep a tight fist on the real figures. Last week, a Nepalese domestic worker named Sina Bell died after reportedly stabbing herself in the stomach.
Sina Bell’s death didn’t garner the same interest as Dechasa-Desisa’s, although there was some outcry about whether authorities had jumped to the conclusion of suicide too quickly.
And with Mahfouz finally facing trial, the sponsorship system that many believe ended her is still in place.
In March, Human Rights Watch and seven other non-governmental organizations asked the authorities “to act quickly to reform restrictive visa regulations and adopt a labor law on domestic work to address high levels of abuse and deaths among migrant domestic workers.”
Now, the only shift Houry has seen is a slight increase in sensitivity toward the issues migrant domestic workers face. “You still see abuses going unaccountable,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t think there has been any real structural progress.”