The suicide on March 14 of 33-year-old Alem Dechassa, an Ethiopian domestic worker and mother of two children who had arrived in Lebanon only three months earlier, provoked public outrage – both in Lebanon and abroad. There were also vigils for Dechassa around the world following the widespread dissemination of a video on the Internet of her abuse and humiliation at the hands of Ali Mahfouz, the Lebanese agent who had brought her. He has since been charged with contributing to her death, but we will never know the full story of her experiences during the three months she was in the country.
One can only hope that this case has spurred into action the police, as well as the Labor Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry and General Security. But that remains to be seen.
Dechassa’s death was one of scores of similar incidents that have occurred over the years. These have been poorly investigated by the Lebanese authorities, and were documented by Human Rights Watch four years ago. Embassies of countries representing migrant domestic workers have been powerless to intervene. The latest reported abuse is that of a Bengali domestic worker who was raped six weeks ago by a policeman guarding her at the Nabatieh courthouse. She was “caught” and imprisoned after she had “escaped” from an abusive employer.
Some have suggested that a separate law be passed to address migrant domestic workers. Others have proposed that they be integrated under Lebanon’s labor law. Whatever the solution, there needs to be a cultural change in the treatment of foreign women who are frequently the domestic backbone of the Lebanese family – and the economy.
With approximately 200,000 migrant domestic workers in the country, around 25 percent of Lebanese households have a live-in migrant domestic worker. Without their work doing the household chores, cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing and caring for children, how would Lebanese couples, of almost all social strata, cope with their jobs, families and social lives, let alone their marriages?
Perhaps that is the problem. Positive change is difficult because many Lebanese are afraid of losing the strict control over having these household tasks that are performed for them, and so cheaply. There is a huge dependency in play here, and the provision of these services is critical for the quality of Lebanese daily life. Both personal and family status is enhanced by being able to have a servant do whatever menial task is desired – day and night. The practical and symbolic status enhancement of Lebanese families too often comes alongside the degradation of the foreign workers in their households.
Obviously, not all domestic workers in Lebanon are abused. However, many Lebanese women complain that they themselves do not enjoy fundamental rights in Lebanon, so why is it necessary to focus on domestic workers? It’s almost as if there were some kind of hierarchy of rights whereby non-Lebanese women are relegated to the bottom of the list. What kind of moral argument is this? Is it racism?
And how does one explain the casual brutality of Ali Mahfouz? The agency system in Lebanon has always been corrupt and seriously lacking in regulation and transparency. The authoritarian and violent behavior of many of those operating placement agencies has been known and accepted for years. We know that recalcitrant workers can be returned to the agency for “corrective punishment” if the employers are unable or unwilling to do it themselves. And the financial exploitation of domestic workers by the agents, who take the first three months of their salaries, is scandalous and should be stopped, because it amounts to human trafficking.
To dismiss Alem Dechassa’s suicide as the act of someone with a mental illness is too easy. Yes, in any population, 2-3 percent of people have some form of mental illness. This includes not only migrant domestic workers, but also their employers. Many questions have still to be answered, such as why Dechassa was not placed under special scrutiny at the Deir al-Salib psychiatric hospital where she was taken after her beating, since she had allegedly attempted suicide before?
Dechassa was understandably adamant and angry, not wanting to be deported back to Ethiopia. She had probably not been paid any salary since arriving in Lebanon. She had probably also borrowed money to fund her journey. With two children at home, she would have returned home in shame with nothing but a serious debt that she could not repay, and failure in her mission to provide for her family. She did not want to do this. In any case, the decision to deport someone from a country should not be in the hands of an agent or an employer.
The question remains whether the Lebanese government has the courage to finally give the question of migrant domestic workers the luxury of their time, instead of the usual excuse that there are more important matters of state with which to deal. The workers’ vulnerability to the sponsorship system has long been plain. More than a decade ago, scholars and human rights activists were also writing about the plight of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Every issue raised at the time still has pertinence today.
Are there enough Lebanese men and women of conscience to do something? After years of debate, a ministerial committee drafted legislation last year to improve protection for migrant domestics. The labor minister then, Boutros Harb, severely reduced the legislation’s scope. Before it could be implemented, this year a new minister, Charbel Nahhas, instead preferred to place domestic work under Lebanese labor law, which would have been a giant first step to revise the system. Will Nahhas’ replacement, Salim Jreissati, take up the issue?
If citizens remain silent, there is little hope for any action to correct the daily injustices inflicted on migrant domestic workers. The dreadful international reputation of the Lebanese on the issue will persist.
Ray Jureidini is an associate professor of sociology at the Institute for Migration Studies of the Lebanese American University in Beirut. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.