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Suicide attempt highlights plight of Lebanese migrant workers

An Ethiopian domestic worker survived a four-story plunge, but her case once again highlights Lebanon’s poor track record in its treatment of migrant workers.
A migrant domestic worker holds up a placard during a parade in Beirut, to support the rights of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, ahead of May Day, April 29, 2012. 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. REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir (LEBANON - Tags: CIVIL UNREST BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT POLITICS) - RTR31DDR

The video of an Ethiopian domestic worker attempting suicide on Nov. 10 by jumping off the fourth floor of her building in Beirut shocked the country. It once again brought Lebanon’s much-criticized sponsorship system — kafala, in Arabic, which controls the way domestic workers live — into the spotlight.

The young woman was identified as Barcotan Dupree on Ethiopian news websites. Subsequent interviews released on Ethiopian social media (translated for Al-Monitor by a domestic worker who prefers to remain anonymous) reveal that Dupree had been beaten by her sponsor on several occasions. We also discovered that she once escaped from her sponsor’s house, but returned because she had “nowhere else to stay.” She’s now being cared for at the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center.

While obviously disturbing, there’s nothing about this story that should surprise us. The kafala system puts the domestic worker’s legal status in the hands of her employer, or “sponsor,” leaving an estimated 250,000 migrant workers, mostly women of South/Southeast Asian and African origins, vulnerable to both physical and mental abuse and exploitation.

Because of this complete legal dependency, most migrant workers being abused are faced with choosing between enduring the abuse, fleeing (thus becoming an illegal resident of Lebanon) or ending their lives. Leaving the country is rarely an option as they require the approval of their employer, who often withhold their documents, including their passports. As KAFA, a prominent Lebanese civil society organization, aptly summarized in a 2012 report, “in effect the [kafala] system reinforces the dependency, the master/servant dynamic, and the power imbalance between Lebanese employers and migrant domestic workers.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Bernadette Daou, KAFA’s program coordinator for migrant domestic worker issues, said, “Under the kafala system, the legal status of a migrant worker and her right to work is dependent on her employer’s will. This leads to a very vulnerable situation for the domestic worker.”

Lebanon’s kafala system was even singled out in a 2013 international report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as contributing to the “exploitation and abuse of workers.” Speaking to Al-Monitor about Dupree’s case, Nadim Houry, the Middle East and North Africa deputy director for Human Rights Watch, said that, while an investigation must determine what happened, he “cannot help but think that if the worker was able to leave their employer freely, we would see less suicides/attempted suicides.”

Despite constant calls by both local and international human rights organizations, little effort has been done to reform or abolish Lebanon’s kafala system. The only such attempt can be credited to former Labor Minister Charbel Nahas, who described the system as “racial discrimination” and even called it illegal under Lebanese law. “The so-called system of the sponsorship or guarantor [kafala] does not exist in Lebanese law,” he said in January 2012, explaining that it was imported from Arab countries by the Lebanese General Security intelligence agency. His efforts, however, were cut short upon his resignation in 2012.

Generally considered a low political priority, domestic workers only make the headlines when tragedy strikes, such as when the kidnapping of Alem Dechasa-Desisa, an Ethiopian national, was caught on camera nearly three years ago. Released by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBCI), the video showing her employer, Ali Mahfouz, carrying her against her will in front of the Ethiopian Embassy and forcing her into his car with another man's help, went viral and provoked worldwide outrage with protests by Ethiopian expatriates reaching Toronto and Washington.

When Dechasa-Desisa committed suicide several days later in Deir el Salib Psychiatric Hospital, Mahfouz was accused by the authorities, but never prosecuted. As Khaled Beydoun wrote for Al Jazeera in April 2012, Dechasa’s death was “but a common consequence of the modern-day slavery industry in Lebanon.” Other stories of a similar nature include the six African women who were kept as slaves in south Lebanon earlier this year in March and another woman who attempted suicide by jumping off the seventh floor in Beirut’s Dahyeh suburb in May.

But while numerous nongovernmental organizations and activists continue to work on these issues, legal reform remains the most urgent step needed to tackle the master/servant dynamic that KAFA wrote about. And, as Houry said, reforming the kafala system wouldn’t even be an end in itself. “Domestic workers are explicitly excluded from Lebanon’s labor law and from the basic protections that the law and other labor policies afforded to most other workers, such as limits on working hours and provision for overtime pay. Lebanon needs to include domestic workers in the labor code or adopt a separate law that grants them these rights,” he said.

Lebanon’s civil society, to its credit, has been working on this issue for several years. According to Daou, it has been “pushing for a legal reform around a rights-based approach to the recruitment and employment of foreign workers that would regulate the employment and residence of migrant domestic workers and diminish the prevalence of exploitation.”

As for the authorities, it’s a different matter. The government has fallen short of doing anything other than what HRW described as, “small, token reforms” with very limited impact and without implementing any mechanism to enforce them.

“There have been plenty of promises of reform by the authorities, but they always fell short. With each labor minister, we go back to square one in terms of process,” Houry said.

One such reform has been the Ministry of Labor’s introduction of a compulsory standard contract in January 2009. The contract explicitly required employers to abide by certain rules such as paying the monthly salary on time with receipts of payment, providing a 24-hour rest period each week and paid sick leave, buying health insurance for employees, allowing workers to keep in touch with their families as well as restrict the maximum number of daily working hours. Failure to implement a mechanism to enforce the law has led to the perpetuation of abuse.

Dupree is now being cared for, but how many more domestic workers would have to attempt, and often succeed in committing suicide before this issue becomes a government priority?