The journey of the future and psychological loss: the challenges that domestic workers pursue to suicide

By Zaya Stas


In Lebanon, domestic workers, primarily hailing from countries like the Philippines and Ethiopia, tirelessly seek better economic opportunities, leaving their homes behind. Despite their arduous efforts, a distressing reality awaits them behind closed doors, characterized by challenging work conditions, exploitation, and social isolation. Approximately 25,000 migrant domestic workers toil in Lebanon, predominantly comprising women from African and Southeast Asian nations such as Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, these labourers find themselves devoid of the protection offered by local labour laws, as their status in the country is intricately tied to the sponsorship system. This system, governed by traditional laws, regulations, and customs, binds the legal residence of migrant domestic workers to their employer, making them vulnerable and dependent. This blog delves into the historical context surrounding the issue. This blog will shed light on the plight of these domestic workers, exposing the appalling conditions they endure, often leading some of them to despair. The gravity of their situation serves as a call to action, urging society to address these injustices and champion the rights and dignity of these hardworking individuals who only seek a chance at a better life.

For decades, Lebanon has experienced significant growth in foreign employment, starting in the 1960s when underage girls from impoverished families in the Lebanese countryside were brought to work in domestic service. These young girls, aged ten and older, received annual pay while living with their employers until they married. The outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1978 prompted many Arab domestic workers to leave the country due to the economic downturn and security crisis, leading to a domestic labour shortage. However, this changed with the arrival of African and Asian migrant workers. The Lebanese economy increasingly relied on expatriate labour, particularly in sectors like construction and agriculture, thanks to Gulf funds entering the country. Initially, male migrant workers constituted the majority, but by the early 1980s and 1990s, there was a noticeable shift towards a more female-dominated migrant workforce. Migrants from Sri Lanka and the Philippines predominantly arrived in large groups through illegal and semi-legal channels. The foreign currency conversions from these workers supported their home countries and even contributed to reducing Lebanon’s debt burden. Over time, Lebanon’s economic difficulties and financial system collapse led to the depreciation of the Lebanese pound, affecting the earnings of migrant workers and prompting many to consider immigration in search of better opportunities abroad. Presently, Lebanon’s most prevalent category of domestic workers consists of Ethiopians and Filipinos. There are approximately 1000 more domestic workers from Ethiopia than the number of Filipinos, with about 31,916 Filipino domestic workers in the country. The presence of Ethiopian and Filipino domestic workers in Lebanon can be traced back to the 1980s when the country faced a workforce shortage during the civil war. This increased demand for migrant workers, leading many Ethiopian and Filipino women to migrate to Lebanon for improved job prospects. Unfortunately, their experiences in Lebanon have often been marred by exploitation and abuse. Many domestic workers find themselves trapped in situations resembling modern slavery, enduring long hours without adequate rest, residing in inappropriate housing conditions, and having their wages withheld. They are frequently subjected to physical and verbal abuse; tragically, some even suffer from sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. The plight of these domestic workers highlights the urgent need for better protection and enforcement of labour laws, as well as a more substantial commitment to eradicating exploitation and ensuring their rights and dignity are upheld.

Domestic workers from Ethiopia and the Philippines are drawn to Lebanon for several compelling reasons, primarily motivated by economic factors and employment opportunities. Ethiopia and the Philippines face significant economic disparities and high unemployment rates, prompting many individuals from these countries to seek better prospects abroad. Their goal is to secure improved economic opportunities to support their families and enhance their living conditions, as the GDP per capita in both nations remains notably low. GDP per capita, a crucial indicator of economic prosperity and individual purchasing power, is used to gauge living standards across different countries. In the Philippines and Ethiopia, this indicator reflects the challenges many citizens encounter in attaining higher levels of economic well-being. As a result, Lebanon, with its relatively higher income levels, presents an appealing destination for these individuals to seek employment and send remittances back to their country of origin. Lebanese society has a structure that often relies on domestic assistance to manage households, particularly in urban areas. Various roles, such as nannies, cleaning workers and domestic tasks, are essential for many households in the country. This demand for domestic help creates opportunities for migrant workers from Ethiopia and the Philippines to find employment and contribute to the functioning of Lebanese households. As a result, the symbiotic relationship between these domestic workers and Lebanese households forms a crucial part of the country’s social fabric. However, it is essential to ensure that the rights and well-being of these migrant workers are protected and that they are treated fairly and respectfully in their adopted country. Proper regulations, adherence to labour laws, and an emphasis on creating a safe and supportive environment are necessary steps to safeguarding the dignity and rights of all domestic workers in Lebanon. By recognizing their invaluable contributions to society and addressing the challenges they face, Lebanon can foster a more inclusive and equitable environment for all.

Filipino and Ethiopian workers in Lebanon endure numerous tribulations and difficulties, tragically, in some cases, leading to suicide. Despite the aim of the sponsorship system in Lebanon to regulate migrant workers’ movement and secure social stability, it has resulted in the exploitation of women workers and the violation of their rights by their sponsors. Many Ethiopian and Filipino workers in Lebanon face the harsh reality of low wages and late or non-payment of salaries, leaving them unable to support their families back home or meet their basic needs. Moreover, their living conditions often prove insufficient, with many residing in poor housing provided by their employers. Due to the sponsorship system’s restrictions and the lack of legal protection, these workers find themselves trapped in exploitative situations, unable to leave their jobs or switch sponsors when facing difficulties beyond their control. Consequently, they suffer in a state of confusion, deprived of their fundamental human rights. The economic crisis, the devaluation of the local currency, and the appreciation of the dollar have compounded the challenges these workers endure. Many have lost their jobs or faced reduced working hours, exacerbating their already precarious situations. Tragic incidents have unfolded, underscoring the dire circumstances faced by domestic workers. For instance, a heart-wrenching story involved a 33-year-old Ethiopian worker named Deshasa, who committed suicide after a video emerged on social media showing her being brutally beaten and forced into a car in Lebanon’s capital. Shockingly, passers-by merely recorded the disturbing scene on their mobile phones, reflecting the Lebanese community’s lack of compassion and concern. Another distressing case involved Tegist Tadesse, a 21-year-old Ethiopian woman who came to Lebanon to support her parents and improve their financial situation. Tegist suffered from torture at the hands of her sponsoring family, and she was denied access to the Ethiopian embassy, compelled to keep the abuse a secret. Tragically, her family prevented her from returning to her home country, and she was subjected to further beatings despite her illness and inability to walk. These heartrending stories shed light on the grim reality many domestic workers face in Lebanon. Addressing these challenges requires urgent action and a collective effort to protect the rights and dignity of these vulnerable individuals. Implementing stronger legal protections and ensuring fair treatment and decent working conditions are essential to fostering a safer and more compassionate environment for all migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.

Every step domestic workers take on the soil of Lebanon is accompanied by fatigue and misery. Their sacrifices and tremendous efforts are met with a constant struggle against harsh conditions and exploitation. With each passing day, these brave women carry the burdens of pain and challenges, their hearts unwavering in the face of adversity. Life in Lebanon for these workers feels like an unforgiving hell that knows no boundaries. They encounter threats of injustice and endure harsh conditions, all while the media often fails to shine the light they genuinely deserve. Tragically, some of these workers do not succumb to suicide. However, instead, they become victims of inhuman practices and neglect by their sponsors – individuals who should be their protectors. As we witness the pain and injustice they endure, it is crucial to scrutinize their sponsors with a gaze befitting their crimes. These sponsors are indeed criminals, perpetrating cruelty and harm against these hardworking women. Their actions are reprehensible, and they must be held accountable for the suffering they inflict upon these vulnerable workers. Recognizing these domestic workers’ plight and the gravity of their struggles is the first step toward change. We must raise awareness, demand justice, and advocate for robust protections and support mechanisms for these workers. It is imperative that society stands united against the exploitation and mistreatment of domestic workers, ensuring that their rights and dignity are upheld and that they receive the respect and care they rightfully deserve. Only then can we work towards building a more compassionate and just society for everyone.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Canada Kuwait Aid Network.”

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