Alem Dechasa-Desisa’s death at age 33 would have probably gone unnoticed — like that of so many other migrants — if not for a widely circulated video showing her being physically assaulted by a man, later identified as labor recruiter Ali Mahfouz, at the gates of the Ethiopian consulate 20 days prior. Dechasa-Desisa had come from Ethiopia to Lebanon in December 2011 to work as a domestic worker. She committed suicide on March 14. Caught on film, the abuse of Dechasa-Desisa triggered a public outcry that pushed the prosecutor to charge Mahfouz on March 22 with contributing to and causing her suicide.
The abuse of Dechasa-Desisa was outrageous and its perpetrator must be held accountable. But the issue here is not just the criminal behavior of a recruiter, but the entire system of recruiting and regulating migrant domestic workers. Dechasa-Desisa’s death was entirely foreseeable and could have been prevented had the Lebanese authorities granted domestic workers their most basic rights. For years now, human rights groups have been raising the alarm over the high suicide rate among domestic workers in Lebanon. A 2008 Human Rights Watch study concluded that domestic workers were dying at an average rate of one a week, mostly from suicides and failed escape attempts from buildings. KAFA, a Lebanese women’s rights group, compiled information about nine deaths for the single month of August 2010. This year, The Guardian newspaper reported on the death of Lila Aacharya, a Nepalese woman who arrived to Lebanon in late 2011 and died on January 29, her body found dangling from a balcony window near Beirut. A few days later, Paltishi Hendor, an Ethiopian domestic worker, was found dead after she hung herself at her employer’s house in Keserwan. The situation has gotten so bad that three years ago an ambassador from one of the ‘labor sending’ countries told me that he was no longer running an embassy but a funeral parlor.
Suggestions that these women were simply unstable are unfounded. Interviews with embassy officials, and friends of domestic workers who committed suicide, suggest that the main factors in these deaths are isolation caused by forced confinement, excessive work demands, employer abuse and financial stress. Dechasa-Desisa’s overriding worry, according to a social worker from the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center who visited her at the psychiatric hospital a few days prior to her death, was her ability to feed her two children in Ethiopia and repay the debt she had incurred to travel to Lebanon.
Faced with overwhelming evidence of a broken system that regularly drives migrants to despair, the Lebanese authorities’ lack of an effective response amounts to negligence. Under pressure from rights groups and countries that started barring their nationals from coming to Lebanon, the authorities introduced a compulsory standard employment contract for domestic workers in January 2009. But the contract provides weak protections, is only available in Arabic — a language most workers cannot read — and is rarely enforced. Most importantly, the authorities took no measures to grant these workers the right to move freely during their time off, which would help end the isolation they often endure.
If Lebanon wants to end the high suicide rates among migrant domestics, it must fundamentally revisit the current kafala (sponsorship) system that grants employers so much control over domestic workers’ lives. As one ILO representative told the media, the kafala system creates “a total dependency of the worker on the employer for her food, sleeping, health, everything. Total dependency creates total vulnerability and opens the door wide to exploitation.”
Lebanon needs to catch up with international standards by ending this dependency and ensuring that workers can — as a matter of law — leave the household during their time off. Visa regulations must be amended to allow them to live on their own if that is the arrangement they prefer. And finally Lebanon must reexamine the role of private recruitment agencies whose business is to make money by finding and selling cheap labor to Lebanese families. At a minimum, the authorities need to ensure that all agencies are licensed through a rigorous inspection process and monitored regularly. Better still, they should explore an alternative recruitment process that reduces the role of intermediaries.
Short of that, Dechasa-Desisa’s tragic end will be far from the last.