The Abuse & Death of Alem Dechasa: The Struggle to End Domestic Slavery in Lebanon

A guest post republished from Kabobfest:

Since uprisings began rocking the Arab World last December, I’ve watched far more Youtube videos documenting horrifically violent incidents than I like to think about. There were crowds run over by trucks in Cairo, marchers shot in Tunis, Syrian soldiers kicking bound detainees, women dragged and beaten in Tahrir, Bahrainis shot with tear gas canisters, Palestinians, Libyans, Moroccans, Jordanians, Saudis, Omanis… Like many others, this year I have learned dozens of ways to kill people that I had never thought of and scores of tactics to humiliate and terrify innocents that I would have never dreamed of. By no means have I been desensitized to the violence, despite the repeated exposure. But at some point, the feeling of deep moral revulsion that sticks in your gut and makes you want to scream stops coming around so often, and by the 12th month of the Syrian revolution you begin to wonder if anything will ever affect you that way again.

And then a video like this comes around, and I know again what it is to have my entire body shake in moral revulsion at the cruelty human beings can inflict on each other.

The video does not show protesters in some Bahraini village or government forces in Baba Amr. Rather, it takes place on a peaceful, well-maintained street in Beirut, and it involves ordinary people. There is no political message here. What you see is just a group of Lebanese men doing exactly what it looks like: physically assaulting a visibly incapacitated Ethiopian domestic worker and forcibly packing her into a car outside of the Ethiopian embassy.  The woman was later identified as Alem Dechasa, and she committed suicide only a few days later using the sheets of her bed at the mental hospital she was forcibly checked into.

Migrant domestic workers across the Middle East have almost no legal supervision and their abuse gets even less media coverage, meaning that the slavery that makes the region run is generally hidden from view. And then, once every so often, someone takes out their camera phone and reminds you just whose exploitation is making this all run smoothly.

In Lebanon alone there are between 250-400,000 domestic workers, the majority are women who come on contracts from the Phillipines, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and a number of other countries across Asia and Africa. Millions more live and work in other countries in the Middle East, though the vast majority are wrapped up in varying versions of the kafala system. This legal arrangement makes an employer their worker’s guarantor, giving the employer nearly full legal control over life and body and in some cases, like in Lebanon, making it illegal for them to sleep outside of their home, for example. These sorts of restrictions have created an environment in which conditions that resemble slavery are the norm, and even those workers who have “good” employers that do not physically or verbally assault them regularly are unable to enjoy even the most basic rights.

According to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, surveys reported that of domestic workers in Lebanon interviewed:

  • 7-11% report sexual harassment
  • 14-33% report physical abuse by employers
  • 40% did not have a private room
  • 31-80% cannot leave their employer’s house alone
  • 34% have no regular time off- not even one day a week
  • Vast majority had their passports confiscated

These statistics are hard to verify and are based off of only a few surveys that have been taken (hence the wide ranging figures). For obvious reasons, employers rarely allow their workers to be interviewed, and in countries with even less press freedom than Lebanon it is even harder to document the abuse. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that these figures reflect a grim reality, and one figure stands out above the rest: an average of one domestic worker dies in Lebanon every week.

It is important to note, however, that the abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers is a phenomenon that occurs around the world. One of the major effects of neoliberalism and global free trade has been the creation of a massive underclass of mobile workers who go to where the jobs are. They rarely receive any sort of legal protections whatsoever and because they tend to come from poor countries with little political clout, even these few protections are rarely enforced. Because they are spread across many countries and tend to be locked in their employers’ houses, it has been exceedingly difficult for migrant workers to organize in defense of their rights.

And yet, despite these odds, in the last few years migrant workers have begun organizing politically in Lebanon and around the world. Migrant worker activists (often based in the home country) have become more adept at developing support networks across the Middle East (examples include the Nepali and Filipina communities). More recently, activists set up the Migrant House in Beirut, the first migrant-led and –staffed support center in the region, providing a model for activism by migrant workers for migrant workers and supported by local activists. And last May Day, large a rally was held by migrant workers in the heart of Beirut demanding greater rights and an end to the racism that many see facilitating the flagrant abuse of workers.

Additionally, an increasing number of activist groups in Lebanon have begun to tackle the issue of migrant rights, ranging from local NGO’s like Kafa to activist networks such as Anti-Racism Movement and volunteer collectives like Migrant Worker Task Force [full disclosure: the author is a member of Migrant Worker Task Force]. These groups have engaged in a variety of actions such as tracking racist content in media and even producing a series of mock tourism advertisements entitled “Welcome to Lebanon” that juxtapose the country’s famed touristic attractions with the realities of life as a foreign migrant worker.

Despite these efforts, and the particularly remarkable successes of migrant worker activists in drawing attention to the issue, videos like that of the young Ethiopian woman beaten in front of her embassy remind us just how much must work is still to be done. Activists have begun planning another May Day parade in support of migrant workers’ rights. If you are in Beirut, please show up and voice your anger over these abuses:

Contributed by Alex Shams, a MWTF member.

Originally published at Kabobfest.


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