A video showing a young Ethiopian maid being dragged by the hair, beaten and forced into a car by several Lebanese men in a busy Beirut street has shocked and alarmed the Lebanese public. On March 14, a few days after the video was shot, the young maid committed suicide in a psychiatric ward.
The scene, captured by a cell phone camera, occurred in front of the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut. The maid, named Alem Dechasa, is lying on the ground, crying and pleading in Ethiopian: "I don’t want to go there!" An onlooker can be heard attempting to stop the man beating her: "Stop it, what’s your problem? Let her go back to the consulate." But a few moments later, another man grabs Dechasa’s collar and drags her on the ground, then tries to force her into a car. She resists, and one of the men violently grabs her hair – at which point the video cuts. The footage has caused public outrage and spread on the Web after it was aired on the Lebanese channel LBCI last week.
Video courtesy of LBCI.
The main perpetrator of the violent acts in the video, identified by the licence plate of his car, is Ali Mahfouz, the owner of a maid service agency that employs many migrant workers. He told LBCI that the young girl, one of the agency’s recruits, had attempted to commit suicide several times. He claims that he had taken her to her consulate for her to be sent her back to her country, which she categorically refused.
Ethiopian consular officials said that they found Dechasa too unstable to be sent back to Ethiopia, and had advised Mahfouz to take her to a psychiatric hospital in the city. After they left, the consular officials said they heard screams and shouts coming from the street and called the police. According to Mahfouz, he was trying to get Dechasa into a car to drive her to the airport when the police interfered and took her to the Deir al-Salib psychiatric ward.
She committed suicide there on March 14 by strangling herself with a sheet.
Like many of her colleagues, Dechasa had gone into debt to pay the agency that had brought her to Lebanon illegally, two months before her death. An estimated 200,000 house employees, mostly from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Madagascar, currently work in Lebanon. Over 100,000 of them are believed to have no working papers.
“There is a culture of racism against domestic employees in Lebanon”
Ali Latifa Fakhri is a member of the Lebanese Anti-Racism movement in Beirut.
Ali Mahfouz brought Dechasa to the consulate while she was in a crazy frenzy. He then justified himself by saying that she had tried to commit suicide several times and he had been forced to switch her to another house. But the question is obviously not whether or not the girl had mental problems. Violence like this can in no case be justified. It’s also worth asking whether Dechasa became unstable following the treatment she underwent at the hands of her employers.Personally, I consider businesses like Mahfouz’s little more than human trafficking. These recruiters go to Ethiopia, Sri Lanka or the Philippines to convince poor women to work in Lebanon. They promise good wages, days off, freedom of religion, etc… But once in Lebanon, they often find themselves working 18 hours a day with no rest, irregular pay, and limited freedom. Sometimes, their passport is confiscated and they can’t go anywhere without their employer’s permission. They’re worse than second-class citizens, they’re like slaves. [Every year, there are reports of several thousand maids being physically or sexually abused by their employers in Lebanon.]“Our laws link an immigrant’s work permit and residency status to a single employer – and many employers abuse that power”This systematic abuse has a legal basis: our sponsorship laws. This absurd system links an immigrant’s work permit and residency status to a single employer. If a maid loses her job, she can be sent back to her country. Of course, many employers abuse that power to over-work the women.“The simple fact that such blatant violence took place in front of the woman’s consulate is proof that nothing stops employers”The system completely excludes these employees from the rights of other Lebanese workers: they have practically no legal protection. To try to secure some rights for maids, in 2009 the government set up a single and mandatory work contract for domestic workers, which includes a minimum wage, one day of rest per week, and at least nine hours of rest per day, but that didn’t solve the problem. Do they really think that these newly arrived residents can afford to turn around and sue their employers if they don’t respect the law? On top of that, many of them have no legal working documents. They need to be given the exact same rights as other Lebanese workers, period. But there’s no political will to do it – there is a culture of racism against domestic employees in Lebanon.The simple fact that such blatant violence took place in front of the woman’s consulate is proof that employers have every power and that nothing stops them.”