Four Ethiopian Maids Commit Suicide in 12 Days

November 7, 2009

By Benjamin Joffe-Walt/Beirut
Four Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon are believed to have committed suicide over the past two weeks. The news comes one year after an extensive report on working conditions for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon found one female maid to be dying in the country every week.

“It seems that things have simply not changed,” Nadim Houry, a migrant workers researcher with the US-based Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line. “The rate we found last year was very alarming and we are still alarmed by the rate of deaths we are seeing, which look similar if not worse than last year.”

Two of the four cases over the last two weeks have been confirmed suicides.
The first, 26-year-old Matente Kebede Zeditu, was found to have hung herself from an olive tree in Harif, Southern Lebanon. Ethiopian diplomats in Beirut had no record that Zeditu was in Lebanon.

Labour rights advocates say an underworld of unregistered Ethiopian workers has been created since the Ethiopian government banned its citizens from travelling to Lebanon last year, a move taken after the deaths of a number of Ethiopian domestic workers in the country.
“Many are still coming and agents in both Ethiopia and Lebanon have found ways to get around the ban, often by sending migrant workers through third countries like Yemen,” Houry said. “So we tried to go to the consulate but they just didn’t have any information.”
The second case, 24-year-old Kassaye Atsegenet, jumped from the seventh floor of a building in downtown Beirut and left a suicide note. The police officially reported the suicide as the result of a spat between Atsegenet and her sister.

The third case, 26-year-old Tezeta Yalmiya, died after falling from the third floor of a building in Abra, near the city of Saida. It is unclear whether Yalmiya accidentally fell, was attempting to escape, or was pushed.

“All we know is that supposedly she was trying to clean and she fell,” Houry said. “Cases where it’s intentional homicide are rare, but it does happen. Usually, though, it’s either suicide, an attempt to escape down the outer walls using TV cables and they just fall or they are asked to do dangerous work.”

Little is known about the final case, 30-year-old Saneet Mariam, a fourth Ethiopian national who died in the town of Mastita.

“There are some clear cases where you can tie the causes of death or suicide to abuse by the employers,” Houry said. “In many other cases the direct causation is not as clear because there are a number of things going on. But when you have a pattern of suicide like this you can’t just attribute it to individual depression, it points to a more systemic issue driving these women to commit suicide.”

“There are clearly a number of women who kill themselves because of workplace conditions,” he continued. “The isolation that these women feel, and that they have no support structure, is a clear factor here. In most cases they have no privacy, don’t have a day off, don’t have the ability to talk to anyone else.”

Houry argued that much of the problem lies in the false expectations many migrant domestic workers are given prior to their arrival in Lebanon. Many workers pay hundreds of dollars expecting high-level business jobs.

“The women who are being sent overseas don’t know what to expect,” he said. “They’ve been promised things that are not true and they end up feeling trapped. They may decide they miss family and want to go back, but the employer does various things to put pressure on them to continue working and they see no way out but to commit suicide.”
There are believed to be around 200,000 domestic workers in Lebanon and a Human Rights Watch investigation last year found that more than one domestic worker was dying every week in the country. Half of the deaths were Ethiopian women, who make up less than a quarter of the domestic workers in Lebanon.

“What happens with migrant domestic workers is that their rights are not very well protected by national legislation and employers often treat them very badly,” Gloria Moreno-Fontes, a senior labour migration specialist with the International Labour Organisation told The Media Line. “Some advances have been made in Lebanon but incidents like these are very worrying.”
“It’s an issue of enforcement,” Moreno-Fontes stressed. “There is a lack of monitoring and a lack of control over the employers or their intermediaries, such as private agents.”
“The government needs to do more and there needs to be better enforcement of existing laws,” she said.
Houry agreed that there was a need for better law enforcement.

“First, there has to be a commission to look into this phenomenon and a hotline set up so that these women can call in to raise a flag before they actually get to the point of committing suicide,” he warned. “Then, there needs to be enforcement when the flag is raised.”
Houry said even after death the families of the departed often face further difficulties.
“Sometimes the bodies sit in a fridge in Lebanon for months,” Houry claimed. “Also the insurance companies often refuse to pay to repatriate the bodies.”

“There is sometimes just an utter disregard for life,” he added. “We found one case in which they sent the wrong person, an Ethiopian worker’s body, back to Nepal. When her family opened the casket they realised the mistake.”- The Media Line