Beirut, March 23, 2012 – Lebanese authorities should 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, a group of eight concerned civil society groups said today. The government should also announce publicly the outcome of the investigation into the recent abuse and subsequent suicide of Alem Dechasa-Desisa, an Ethiopian domestic worker.
The eight groups are Human Rights Watch, Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation, Anti Racism Movement, Amel Association International, Insan, Danish Refugee Council, and Nasawiya.
On March 8, 2012, Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI), a Lebanese television network, released a video filmed on February 24 by an anonymous bystander in which a labor recruiter physically abused Dechasa-Desisa outside the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut. As she protests, he and another man drag her into a car. LBCI later identified the man beating Dechasa-Desisa as Ali Mahfouz, the brother of the head of the recruiting agency that brought her to Lebanon. Mahfouz agreed to be interviewed on television and alleged that his brother’s agency had been trying to return her to her home country because she had mental health problems.
Police arrived at the scene shortly thereafter, found the car still there, and took Dechasa-Desisa to a detention center. Following a request by Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, who maintains a presence at the detention facility, they transferred her for medical care two days later but did not arrest those who carried out the beatings. Dechasa-Desisa committed suicide at the Deir al-Saleeb psychiatric hospital in the early morning of March 14. A social worker from Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, who visited Dechasa-Desisa at the Deir al-Saleeb psychiatric hospital, told Human Rights Watch that a Lebanese forensic doctor examined her on March 10.
“Alem Dechasa-Desisa’s death is an outrage on two levels – the violent treatment she endured and the absence of safeguards that could have prevented this tragedy,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should adopt long overdue protections to end rampant abuses against domestic workers and bring down their death toll in the country.”
Following the wide circulation of the video, the labor and justice ministers announced on March 10 that they were opening investigations into Dechasa-Desisa’s beating and ill-treatment. The outcome has not been made public and it is unclear whether the prosecutor will pursue criminal charges against Mahfouz. The Labor Ministry, which regulates recruitment agencies, has yet to report on any measures against Mahfouz’s labor agency.
“The Lebanese authorities only opened an investigation because they found themselves in the media spotlight,” said Houry. “The government urgently needs to address the root causes that are driving so many migrant domestic workers to despair.”
In 2008, Human Rights Watch documented deaths of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon and found that there had been an average of one death a week from unnatural causes, including suicide and falls from tall buildings. KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation, a Lebanese women’s rights group, compiled information about nine deaths in August 2010. According to Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, five Ethiopian domestic workers are currently at the Deir al-Saleeb psychiatric hospital after being transferred there from the General Security detention center.
Lebanese families employ an estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers, primarily from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Nepal. Domestic workers are excluded from the labor law and subject to restrictive immigration rules based on employer-specific sponsorship that put workers at risk of exploitation and make it difficult for them to leave abusive employers. The high incidence of abuse has led several countries, including Ethiopia, to bar their citizens from working in Lebanon. The ban on official travel to Lebanon has not halted the migration of domestic workers and may contribute to women being smuggled or trafficked into the country.
The most common complaints documented by the embassies of labor-sending countries and civil society groups include mistreatment by recruiters, non-payment or delayed payment of wages, forced confinement to the workplace, a refusal to provide any time off for the worker, forced labor, and verbal and physical abuse. Despite repeated public announcements by Lebanese officials that they would improve conditions for migrant domestic workers, reforms have been limited. A compulsory standard employment contract was introduced in January 2009, but is only available in Arabic so far and provides far weaker protections than those available to other workers under the main labor law.
Efforts to introduce a new law to regulate the presence and work of domestic workers have failed to gain momentum. In February 2011, Labor Minister Boutros Harb proposed a draft law to regulate the work of migrant domestic workers that would keep the current sponsorship “kafala” system in place, but his draft law was abandoned as a change in government took place. On January 23, a new labor minister, Charbel Nahhas, publicly announced that he would look at abolishing the “kafala” system, but he resigned over unrelated matters a month later. The newly appointed labor minister, Salim Jreissati, has yet to announce any plans to put an end to the widespread abuses against domestic workers.
“The lack of legislated labor rights for domestic workers and restrictive visa policies contribute to domestic workers’ isolation, mistreatment, debts, and inability to escape from abuse,” Houry said. “The government should make reform of the sponsorship system a priority and adopt a new labor law on domestic work in line with international standards.”
*Lebanon voted in favor of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention No. 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, adopted in June 2011, but has yet to take steps to ratify the treaty or bring itself in compliance. The ILO Convention establishes the first global standards for the estimated 50 million to 100 million domestic workers worldwide. Key elements of the convention require governments to provide domestic workers with labor protections equivalent to those of other workers, to monitor recruitment agencies rigorously, and to provide protection against violence.
Lebanon also has a poor record of punishing abuse against domestic workers. A 2010 Human Rights Watch report, “Without Protection: How the Lebanese Justice System Fails Migrant Domestic Workers,” reviewed 114 judicial decisions involving migrant domestic workers and found that not a single employer faced charges for locking workers inside homes, confiscating their passports, or denying them food.
A review of 13 criminal cases found that it took an average of 24 months to resolve them and that the prosecutions resulted in light sentences. The most severe sentence for beating a domestic worker, of which Human Rights Watch is aware, is one month in prison, imposed by a criminal court on June 26, 2010, against an employer who repeatedly beat a Sri Lankan domestic worker.
“Lebanese authorities should look into several aspects of Dechasa-Desisa’s death – the abuse captured on video, the lack of police investigation into the abuse prior to the video being circulated, and the circumstances of her death while in the care of a hospital,” Houry said. “The government should also adopt a national plan to improve domestic workers’ ability to report abuse and train police, immigration officials, and judges on how to better respond to these cases.”
The Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center has published an account of Alem Dechasa-Desisa’s story.
For more Human Rights Watch reporting on domestic workers, please visit their website.
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Dechasa-Desisa was a 33-year-old Ethiopian national from the Burayo neighborhood of Addis Ababa. She had two children. She arrived in Lebanon in December 2011, through a Lebanese agency, using irregular channels since Ethiopia has a ban on sending its citizens to Lebanon.
The social worker with Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, who monitored Dechasa-Desisa’s case after she was held at the General Security retention facility on February 24, said that she first worked with a Lebanese family for a month but was returned to her agency due to communication problems. She did not get paid for the first month of work. She worked for a second employer for a few days but was sent back to the agency again.
Dechasa-Desisa told the social worker that a recruitment agent beat her and threatened to send her back to Ethiopia following her dismissal by her second employer. She said she needed to earn money to repay debts she incurred in Ethiopia to travel to Lebanon and to send money to her family. The agent tried to take her to the airport twice to return her to Ethiopia, but she resisted and screamed at the airport. Upon returning to the agency, she tried to commit suicide by drinking Clorox. The agency claims she also tried commit suicide a second time by jumping from a car.
On February 24, the recruitment agent took her to the Ethiopian consulate, contending that she had mental problems and asking if she could be left there. A Lebanese activist who spoke to a consulate official told Human Rights Watch that the Ethiopian consulate allegedly refused and told them to take her to a mental hospital. The agent, with the assistance of another man, then appeared to physically abuse Dechasa-Desisa and force her back into the car against her will. That was the incident captured on video by a bystander and circulated on the internet two weeks later.
Shortly after the filmed incident, police arrived at the scene and took Dechasa-Desisa to a police station, and then to the General Security detention center for deportation. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Dechasa-Desisa displayed signs of a nervous breakdown, crying incessantly, and that she was transferred to Nawfal Hospital the next day. After her condition did not improve, she was transferred on March 2 to the Deir al-Saleeb psychiatric hospital.
On March 8, there was a public outcry following the circulation of the video. The public prosecutor opened an investigation. A forensic doctor and a representative from the Ethiopian consulate visited her for the first time at the Deir al-Saleeb hospital on March 10. The Ethiopian consulate also announced that it had filed suit on her behalf. On March 14, Dechasa-Desisa committed suicide by reportedly strangling herself with bed sheets.
After the death of Ethiopian Migrant Domestic Worker in Lebanon, Group Calls on International Protections for Domestic Workers and the Ratification of ILO Convention 189 for Decent Work for Domestic Workers.
“We are all mourning the beating, exploitation, and death of Alem Dechasa-Desisa. Because of her tragic death, we are reminded that we have a very long way to go for domestic workers and migrant workers around the world to be treated with basic human dignity and respect. In Lebanon, like in the US, domestic workers are excluded from many labor laws. And like guestworkers here, domestic workers in Lebanon suffer the vulnerability of restrictive immigration visas tied to specific employers. Let this be a wake up call to all of us around the world – we urgently need protections for domestic workers and migrant workers. Last year, Lebanon voted in favor of the International Labor Organization Convention 189 for Decent Work for Domestic Workers, but only with the ratification of this Convention by governments around the world will the promise of human rights be realized for the 100 million domestic workers around the world. From the California Domestic Worker's Bill of Rights to the ratification of ILO Convention 189 in Lebanon – domestic workers need and deserve basic rights and protections,” says Ai-jen Poo, Co-Founder and Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
“As a domestic worker, immigrant, and just as a human being, I am deeply saddened to hear about the abuse and subsequent death of Alem Dechasa-Desisa, an Ethiopian migrant domestic worker in Lebanon. Right now I am in Alabama meeting immigrant domestic workers who are facing anti-immigrant sentiment in the homes they work in and in the halls of government here. Alem, like myself, and the women I am meeting here in Alabama, made the difficult choice to leave her homeland, her family, her children to go work as a domestic worker and create a better life for her family. Instead she found incredible abuse and a blind eye from the Lebanese government and the Ethiopian consulate. We desperately need both the sending and receiving country governments to recognize our human rights, create and enforce laws that protect us rather than harm us, and ratify ILO Convention 189 for Decent Work for Domestic Workers,” adds Juana Flores, former domestic worker, Co-Director of Mujeres Unidas y Activas and representative of the National Domestic Workers Alliance on the steering committee of the International Domestic Worker’s Network.
This story is devastating, and even more so because it is not at all unique. In a 2008 investigation by Human Rights Watch, they found that 1 domestic worker per week was dying of unnatural causes in Lebanon (suicide, falls from tall buildings, etc). From our work with the International Domestic Worker’s Network, we also know that abuse of migrant domestic workers is commonplace around the world, including here in the United States. Alem’s story is devastating not only because of the horrible abuse she endured, but because it could have been avoided with adequate laws and protections and with increased respect for this work that makes all other work possible.
by Jill Shenker