By Rebecca Whiting
(Al-Akhbar) — The situation of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, structured by a lack of protective labor laws and a culture of racial inequality, marks a huge failure in the country’s human rights record. Documentary filmmaker Vanessa Bowles chose to explore this cultural phenomenon and her personal relationship with it, having grown up constantly tended to by migrant domestic workers. Alem & Asrat was first screened in Lebanon January 4, a look at the realities of two women’s experiences.
In February 2012 a video captured on a mobile phone showed Ethiopian domestic worker Alem Dechasa being dragged by her hair and violently forced into a car in front of the Ethiopian embassy. It went viral. Lebanese society and the wider world were shocked by the public scene of abuse.
Days after the video was aired on LBCI, Dechasa, who had been put in a psychiatric hospital, hung herself. Despite the outcry and widespread nature of the video, the murmur soon died away. Though the most public case, Dechasa’s was tragically one of many. Human Rights Watch documented an average of one death a week due to unnatural causes during 2008, which included suicides and falls from buildings. No official count has taken place since.
Bowles began her project at the exact time of Dechasa’s death and wanted to tell her story. Concurrently, she wanted to delve into her own proximity to the lives of domestic workers. She talks openly about the bonds she formed with the women who have passed through her life and introduces Asrat, the young woman who has been with the Bowles’ family for the past five years. As she works, she talks about her reasons for leaving Ethiopia; a voice too rarely heard.
Bowles’ journey took her to Ethiopia to meet the families of Dechasa and Asrat. She is met by a group of young activists called the Good Ethiopians, who have been campaigning for Dechasa’s family. One of the activists says that if he had one message for Lebanese people, it would be that “Ethiopians are humans, too.”
The group take Bowles to meet Lemesa Ejeta, Dechasa’s partner and father of their two young children. In the small settlement of mud houses and lean-tos in Buraya outside Addis Ababa, Ejeta talks of the six years spent planning and the money borrowed for Dechasa’s move to Lebanon. It had seemed like their only hope of providing for their children.
Recruiting agents often tour the villages of Ethiopia, looking for women to traffic to Lebanon. The women have to pay a hefty charge of 10,000 Ethiopian Birr ($547) for their tickets and agent’s fees. Bowles meets other people from Dechasa’s village who have family members in Lebanon who speak out about their fears for their loved ones in such a hostile environment.
The Good Ethiopians organized a fundraising event and successfully secured the money to ensure that Dechasa’s children will have full educations. At the time of filming, Ejeta had still not told them of their mother’s death. The shots of their faces during the fundraising event where they see a large projected video of their mother being beaten are devastating.
At the end of Bowles’ film she goes to meet Ali Mahfouz, the brother of the head of Dechasa’s recruiting agency and the man who beat her. She described him as very eager to tell his version of the story. He talks, with little pity, of Dechasa’s being moved from one house to another when her employers would change their minds about wanting her. According to him she broke down and tried to harm herself after being sent to a third home within one month of arriving and receiving no wages for her work.
He wanted to send her back to Ethiopia as mentally unwell but said that she resisted, insisting that she could not return as she had not succeeded in sending money back to her family. The infamous scene in front of the embassy he describes as him trying to protect her from herself.
Activist Wissam al-Saliby has kept the blog Ethiopian suicides since 2009 in an effort to document the abuses and deaths of domestic workers. He explained that the there is no official incident tally as the only bodies that have the information are the individual embassies of the countries where the women come from. The vacuum in the reporting on these deaths is shocking, with only the severe cases being mentioned in the media. “So many deaths go unnoticed,” said Saliby.
Domestic workers are not covered by Lebanese labor laws, meaning that they have no minimum wage and no social security. Many of the women working here come from countries that have banned their nationals from working in Lebanon, including Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Madagascar, because of the lack of labor rights. Desperate for work, women are often trafficked into the country and have scant or no protection against abuse. Lebanon’s immigration system does not respect these bans from other countries and once out of their homelands, women are not discouraged from coming to work.
After years of pressure to reform labor laws, on 10 December 2012, International Human Rights Day, parliament announced a national human rights action plan, drawn in conjunction with the UN. The plan as yet is a draft that will be submitted to the government for approval and amendment. After eventually being passed through parliament it will be an annex to the constitution and is expected to take five years to implement.
Point 19 on the action plan concerns the rights of migrant workers. Several NGOs and experts were consulted in the drafting process, including Dima Haddad, senior social worker at Caritas Lebanon Migrant Worker Center, an organization that has long championed the rights of vulnerable workers, Dechasa included.
Haddad explained the framework of the plan put forward to the government concerning migrant workers. The plan recommends that Lebanon signs the two international conventions pertaining to the rights of migrant workers. Also, the labor law must be amended to include domestic workers.
Haddad further explained that, importantly, the sponsorship system must be abolished or replaced with one that respects workers’ rights. The plan calls for the regularizing of domestic workers recruitment agencies as well as working on agreements between Lebanon and the countries migrant workers originate from.
It is also suggested that the Ministry of Labor creates a national committee dedicated to developing a strategy for improving the situation of migrant workers on different levels. There is a further suggestion that social workers might take on the role of inspecting and monitoring homes as places of work.
On January 3, attorney at Caritas, Joyce Geha, finally received a date for a hearing of the case against Ali Mahfouz, which will take place February 11. The process took an exceedingly long time as she had to wait to be granted power of attorney by Dechasa’s parents and the Ethiopian embassy before she could represent her case and submit a request to the court against Mahfouz.
Should Mahfouz be charged with assaulting Dechasa and be implemented as a cause in her suicide, the case would be a precedent, Geha explains. According to Human Rights Watch, Lebanon has a very poor record of punishing those who abuse domestic workers.