Lebanon News

Migrant domestic workers develop survival techniques amid harsh conditions

Not all domestic workers are allowed outside their employers’ homes and when they are it’s often to perform tiring duties.

BEIRUT: Last week, an Ethiopian domestic worker named Paltishi Hendor was found hanging by women’s socks in her employer’s house in Ghazir, Kesrouan. Last month, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper reported on Lila Aacharya, a Nepalese woman who was trafficked into Lebanon and found dangling out of a balcony window near Beirut.

And in January alone, three Nepalese domestic workers committed suicide, according to a source at the Nepalese Consulate.

Despite their terrible frequency, the details of these deaths often remain unreported – except in Aacharya’s case, whose ordeal caused a minor uproar in some circles.

For the most part, who these women were and why they died remains unspoken. Migrant community members say that’s largely because they are kept from contact with the outside world. Most of the some 200,000 migrant domestic workers in the country work under the “kafala” (sponsorship) system, which ties residency to the employer, and may prevent those who need it from seeking or accessing help.

Meskream Assesa, an Ethiopian with Lebanese citizenship, didn’t know Hendor. An advocate for Ethiopians here, she said it is fairly common for domestic workers in trouble to remain unnoticed. “Always we hear after they die,” she said. In general, the Ethiopian women who come to work in Lebanon “don’t know anything about it. Sometimes they don’t know where they are going, and they don’t know their rights,” she added.

Mariel, who moved to Lebanon 20 years ago from the Philippines to work as a domestic worker echoes Assesa’s sentiment. She said domestic workers in desperate situations often have little means of communication with the outside world.

“I have witnessed many migrant workers who are locked up, who don’t have enough food and who are not allowed to speak to anybody,” she said.

But when a death happens, news travels fast. “Everyone will be aware quickly of what’s going on,” she said. One communication channel, at least for Filipinos, is the mobile phone. Using lines from the Philippines, workers can exchange text messages with others, either here or back home.

“Most people definitely [buy] this line before leaving the country, because this is their only source of communication,” said Mariel, who did not want her real name published.

Another means of communication is more perceptible to those outside the household walls. Mariel said a domestic worker who can’t leave her house can often be identified “because they will open the kitchen window and they will sit leaning out.” After checking for the presence of an employer, they chat with workers in nearby apartments. Even if they don’t speak the same language, they use signs “to communicate to each other, and know that they have friends.” And if someone doesn’t show up at the window, word gets around.

“If somebody signals that they don’t have enough food,” she continued, workers who do have access to food will often lower or raise supplies in plastic bags using string. Mariel said she was locked in a house for nearly two years when she arrived in the country.

“When I came here it was the opposite of what it said in my contract in the Philippines. They said you will have your own room ... they will provide anything, you will have the food that you want to eat from the Philippines ... [but] I had no day off, I was locked up.”

Mariel also wasn’t paid her wages. After years of advocating for herself, “slowly slowly” she received some payment, and eventually found more fair employment.

Of women like Hendor, Aacharya, and Theresa Otero Seda who died in 2010, Mariel cautioned against rushing to conclude all deaths are suicides.

Seda fell from a seventh-story window in December 2010, and Mariel, still a domestic worker and now also an activist for migrant workers’ rights, became curious about the case.

Seda had only been in the country for two months when she died, and Mariel said she had a mobile phone. She had, Mariel found, been “texting with another friend here ... that she’s been hurt by her employer, there is no food and she is locked up.”

But she was also, Mariel added, texting with her sister and husband, exchanging Christmas greetings and showing no signs of suicidal tendencies. When she died on Jan. 5, her death was presumed a suicide. But Seda’s sister and husband said when her body arrived home she had no teeth, her feet were bent backward, she had stab marks on her back, and she had slits on her wrist that were not deep enough to indicate a suicide attempt.

“Who knows” what happened to Seda, Mariel says. “But you can torture a person and then throw them from a balcony and say she committed suicide. You can do that.”

Mariel complained that employers’ accounts are taken at face value, and that full investigations are not carried out into migrant deaths. A source at the Nepalese Consulate shared the same grievance. He said neighbors, friends and other migrant workers are rarely questioned by the police.

A security source told The Daily Star that “investigations into the deaths of migrant workers are carried out just like any other investigation, including into the deaths of Lebanese. The judiciary is also involved.”

But even taking Mariel’s criticism into account, there are still likely to be plenty of genuine suicides. In one recent case, the Nepalese source said, a woman killed herself after her two children died and she was not allowed to attend their funeral.

“We work so hard,” said Mariel.

“We work with our sweat, with our hands. This kind of job is [considered] the lowest job and we are treated badly and ignored, but we have our dignity ... maybe we don’t have justice now, but we continue because who knows,” she said, hoping that Lebanese law will someday shift in favor of foreign workers. “This is the day we are waiting for.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 11, 2012, on page 4.

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