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Are Lebanese Employers Inciting their Domestic Workers to Commit Suicide?

Hussein Mehdy- Reem Trad
June 21, 2019
Do domestic workers in Lebanon really commit suicide, or are they pushed to kill themselves?

Media outlets hardly edit the story as it is wired via local news agencies or faxed by the police, let alone question it…

“A Bengali domestic worker drowned while swimming in the pool, at the villa where she worked.” 

Or, “From the multiple stabs on her neck, investigations concluded that the servant slit her own throat in a suicide attempt”. 

And, “Ethiopian Adogna Friza hung herself. Investigations ongoing.” 

Did it not occur to the news writer to ask: how could someone stab herself in the neck several times? And, what kind of hair tie would strangle a person to death? And, who is that lucky servant who was allowed to swim in her employer’s pool? 

Nor do these deaths raise any eyebrows in the prosecutors’ circles. Even when initial investigations provide enough compelling evidence, such cases never make it to the next level and are quickly dismissed. 

Nonetheless, the question remains: Did those women really commit suicide, or were they pushed to kill themselves? 

After a little over a year living and working in Lebanon, Tigist returned a dead body to her home country, Ethiopia. The circumstances of this 21-year-old’s death raised many questions about how it actually happened.

During her time in Lebanon, Tigist Tadissy was forced to quietly endure torture at the hands of her employers. At their house, where she worked and lived, they treated her like a prisoner. The very few times she was allowed to call home, it was always from her employer’s phone, and in the latter’s presence. Only Tigist’s sobbing would reach her sister on the other end of the line. 

Tigist’s dream to work and support her parents back home was short lived and came to an end on the night of 5 February, 2018.  

Tigist

In his version of the story, Tigist’s anonymized sponsor-employer, A.S, told investigators that, around midnight, he heard his wife screaming from the servant’s room. He ran and found Tigist hanging from the balcony with a rope around her neck. 

Soon after, prosecutors dropped the case. So soon, in fact, that they didn’t even get to hear the sponsor’s daughter, whose version does not match her father’s: “Tigist had a cough,” the daughter can be heard saying in a recorded conversation with Tigist’s parents, “I took her to the doctor, and paid a lot of money. But when we came home, she swallowed all the pills the doctor gave her. My mother found her dead on the floor. She screamed and cried. We had to take my mother to the hospital, too.” In another phone call, the daughter wonders why Tigist decided to kill herself, “We took good care of her. Tigist was family.” And then, the daughter asks Tigist’s parents to “stop calling this number.” 

This discrepancy between father and daughter’s tales could have dramatically impacted the course of the investigation. Yet Mount Lebanon attorney general, Carmen Ghaleb, found the father’s deposition alone sufficient to have the case dismissed on 27 March. The judge did not hear the testimony of the wife who found the body. Nor the daughter’s or any other family member, or neighbor. 

Not even Tigist’s sister was given a chance to testify. More than once when she was still alive, Tigist cried to her sister on the phone about being physically abused, forbidden contact with the Ethiopian embassy, and forced to suffer in silence. Her wish to return home was denied. One day, Tigist was so sick she could not walk. The “madam” beat her up because of that.

If Daraj was able to collect these pieces of evidence, the prosecution could certainly have, too, had they been willing to fulfill their duty and carry the investigation through to the end. What they did instead was dismiss the case at a time when many indications pointed to possible murder charges, or incitement to suicide, punishable under criminal law. 

“Lowest-class” Victims and Sham Investigations 

Tigist’s is not an isolated incident. It is all but a part of the Lebanese authorities’ systematic approach to cases involving the death of a foreign domestic worker. Twenty-eight investigations into similar deaths took place in 2017, according to Internal Security officials, twenty-five in 2018, and thirteen, as of April, 2019.  These numbers do not include deaths where no investigation whatsoever was conducted, nor do they take into account workers who died on hospital beds because of negligent health care. Officials say that, every other week, they are confronted with a new case of a domestic worker’s death.

Ignored Files: As If It Never Happened

A 2008 report by Human Rights Watch reveals that, every week, more than one foreign domestic worker dies during service in Lebanon. 

Another HRW report, “Without Protection: the Failure of Lebanese Judicial System in Protecting Foreign Domestic Workers” (2011), details Lebanon’s failure to bring justice to those women. It presents proof that many deaths do not get investigated. And the few times when they are, only questions of a general nature are asked. The employers’ testimonies are taken as sufficient evidence. Neither neighbors nor relatives or any other witnesses are invited to testify. Most cases are dismissed as suicide, and employers told they are free to go. 

Out of 114 cases reviewed by the NGO, only in one was the employer convicted. In this telltale case, the sponsor was charged with “manslaughter” because although “she beat [the worker] up to force her to work, her intention was not to kill her.” Under article 550 of Lebanese criminal law, the minimum sentence for such a crime is 5 years, and this leniency is only possible if the accused suffers from a mental or health condition. But the employer in question was served only an 18-month sentence. 

Since the HRW report came out 9 years ago, the authorities’ method in dealing with foreign workers’ deaths has not changed, says Roland Taouk, a lawyer who contributed to the study. The same procedural pattern occurs over and over again: “the body is examined, the employers testify, claim all they know is that they “found” the dead girl, and then the case is dismissed.” Taouk adds that, “obviously, when the victim is Lebanese, the case is taken more seriously. But a foreign domestic worker is treated as a lowest-class citizen.” 

Taouk defended a worker who came to him with a burn mark on her back in the shape of an iron machine, clearly inflicted by her employer. When the latter and her husband were interrogated, they alleged that the burn happened after the girl quit working for them. The prosecution listened and left it at that. No other action would have been taken if it weren’t for the lawyer’s unrelenting pressure. 

No Justice for Lensa Lalissa

“I was beaten every day with an electric wire. They pulled my hair and dragged me around the house. I thought of escaping, but I had no means to leave that house.” Ethiopian worker Lensa Lalissa video recorded her testimony from her hospital bed, in March of 2018. The video, which went viral, did nothing first to impell the General Prosecutor at Mount Lebanon’s court of appeals, Samy Sader, to start an investigation into these torture allegations.

A little earlier in the month, an investigation had been conducted by Al-Jadeeda authorities, when 21-year-old Lensa “fell off” the balcony at the house where she worked. Lensa told detectives then that she was hanging the laundry when she stood on a table and stretched forward to reach the farthest clothesline. That is when she slipped and fell off. 

When the employer’s daughter was interrogated, she related the same exact chronicle, despite the fact that she was not at home when it happened. 

The examination report shows that investigators believed the story without any further ado. Judge Sader dismissed the case. He did not reopen it again until a month later, when “This is Lebanon” -a Facebook page for the violations against foreign workers- picked up Lensa’s hospital video and shared it. Then, General Security opened a probe into allegations of human trafficking, at the end of which it was decided, again, that Lensa was not subjected to torture. 

Human rights organizations questioned the kind of assurances Lensa was given during the interrogation, especially that she was still living at her sponsor’s house at the time. Cross-examination was done in Arabic, of which Lensa has an “intermediate” knowledge, according to the report (She speaks Amharic in the video. And during a TV interview later, carried into the studio on a stretcher, she communicated in English.) Lensa returned to the same house where, for the past seven months, neither was she paid, nor allowed to call her family. Instead of probing into these facts, the Lebanese judiciary, and upon the employers’ request, prosecuted journalists who uncovered the story. The authorities are obviously busy imposing silence on the issue, rather than seeking justice for the workers. 

Luckily, Lensa survived and returned to Ethiopia. “This is Lebanon” shared a video of her telling the whole story. She did not fall that day, she said. She was trying to run away from torture. If she had not survived to tell the story, she would have been reduced to another news headline, just like her fellow workers before her: “A Domestic Worker Jumped off the balcony.” 

Drawing by Rawand Issa

Incitement to Suicide: a Criminal Offense Punishable by Law

The 2011 Anti-Trafficking Law commands the Lebanese authorities to investigate all deaths of foreign domestic workers and determine whether or not they were the result of exploitation. 

Lawyer Ghida Franjieh, From “The Legal Agenda,” says the law brought into being a new way of dealing with suicides resulting from exploitation: “where forced labor is involved, we are talking about human trafficking charges, punishable by up to 12 years in prison if exploitation leads to the worker’s death, even if she commits suicide.” However, Ms. Franjieh and her team have searched the court files for human trafficking cases between 2016 and 2017 to no avail. Not a single case was filed: “We have not yet sensed a serious willingness to implement this law and gauge the extent to which foreign domestic workers are being exploited and abused.” 

A Sponsorship System Legitimizes Slavery and Lethal Working Conditions

Domestic workers in Lebanon are excluded from Labour Law, and instead obtain legal residency through their employers’ sponsorship under the so-called “Kafala” system. A worker cannot quit or change her job without her sponsor’s approval. She often has no choice but to submit to exploitative working conditions. 

There is no law that recognizes the sponsorship system. It is merely used by General Security as a set of guidelines and administrative practices that pretend to regulate the entry of foreign workers to the country. 

Ethiopian worker Rahil Zigi is an MDW rights activist (Migrant Domestic Workers.) She founded  ‘Mesawat Group’ to support oppressed workers. At a demonstration foreign workers held on 5 May, Rahel demanded the sponsorship system be abolished. Every day, she meets a new victim of “Kafala.”

So many horrifying stories haunt Rahil as she goes to bed every night: “One foreign domestic worker is forced by the “Kafala” office manager, who brought her here and confiscated her passport, to work for long hours at multiple houses. She does not get a penny for it. He pockets the salaries himself. She is always confined to working indoors. Her neighbor of three years only met her yesterday for the first time. Another worker who is her neighbor also, secretly sends her food, afraid she might starve. Her employers do not feed her.” 

There is an abundance of stories like that.  

Humiliation follows domestic workers even after they die. A large number of dead bodies remain in refrigerators for a long period of time because employers refuse to fill out the paperwork necessary for their release and return to their families back home. Rahil tells of one such worker who had been sick and died on her hospital bed: “her body stayed in the refrigerator so long it almost decomposed, while back in Ethiopia, the girl’s mother came out of the house every time the dogs barked, to check if her daughter had returned. But neither daughter nor her dead body ever did.”

Rahil herself was no stranger to suicidal thoughts during her first year here. Raised in Addis Ababa by parents who are both writers, Rahil came to Beirut young and with not much experience in the way of household chores. That made her a constant target of humiliation. Her employer made her work non-stop. The lady of the house once beat Rahil for eating chocolate during “no eating” hours. She quit and began work at another house, where she was again pushed to work herself into the ground, without rest, and without privacy.  

A year later, she met another domestic worker who helped her find a better place. Now, she is helping others. 

Amnesty International published a survey last April, titled “Their Home Is My Prison.” In it, six of 32 foreign domestic workers report being driven by their working conditions to suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts. The document details many forms of exploitation and violence, including: subjecting the workers to overwork and depriving them of a weekly day off, confiscating their passports and forbidding them contact with friends and family, and underfeeding them with leftovers. Workers sleep in kitchens or storage rooms or on balconies, and are constantly abused, both verbally and physically: beating, strangulation, hair pulling, head banging on the wall, and sexual assaults.

Magda Hatem, a psychotherapist and social psychologist, says that such systematic abuse could lead to self-harm or even harming others. Suicide remains, however, the ultimate relief from such violence.  

The media collusion 

According to a study by KAFA (an NGO for women’s rights) and “The Movement Against Racism,” 52% of news organizations have been unwilling to seek the truth, and have adopted, without any critical sense, the official “suicide” narrative, by simply republishing General Security statements, wires from the National News Agency, or even relying on interviews with eyewitnesses, such as neighbors. That applies to stories where suicide is especially hard to believe, such as the two domestic workers who committed suicide at the same house, working for the same family, within a very short interval. 

Or take the cases of so-called “falling,” for example. 47 % of news outlets adopt the version that says the domestic worker “jumped off the balcony,” even when forensic doctors themselves have no means to confirm whether she did or someone pushed her. And given the shady ways in which investigations are being conducted, any ruling, especially the common “She Jumped,” is open to doubt. 

The majority of foreign workers’ deaths, however, remain in the dark. More than half do not even reach news offices. In 2018, media outlets announced 13 deaths, while 25 investigation reports were filed that year by security forces. In 2017, the media announced 8 deaths out of 28 cases in which a report was opened.

The majority of media outlets are complicit with the judiciary and General Security in failing to do justice to foreign workers and in perpetuating their tragedies. 

Elissa Medawar and Leila Yameen contributed to this article. 

This investigation was funded by the European Union, with the support of Open Media Hub. 

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