LEBANON: Domestic workers driven to suicide

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The facts are nothing short of tragic. More and more immigrant housemaids are dying every week in Lebanon. Some commit suicide or die trying to run away from their employers, an international human rights organization reported Tuesday.

The findings of the New-York-based Human Rights Watch are appalling:


Since January 2007, at least 95 migrant domestic workers have died in Lebanon. Of these 95 deaths, 40 are classified by the embassies of the migrants as suicide, while 24 others were caused by workers falling from high buildings, often while trying to escape their employers. By contrast, only 14 domestic workers died because of diseases or health issues.

Apparently, strenuous work conditions are behind the high death toll of domestic employees, mainly women coming from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia, according to the HRW report:

Interviews with embassy officials and friends of domestic workers who committed suicide suggest that forced confinement, excessive work demands, employer abuse, and financial pressures are key factors pushing these women to kill themselves or risk their lives.

The report describes chilling cases, including tales of housemaids locked up and beaten up -– sometimes to death -- by their employers, and harshly condemns Lebanese authorities for failing to protect the rights of domestic workers.

According to Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, the findings should drive Lebanese society to seriously address the mistreatment of domestics:

Domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per week.... All those involved -– from the Lebanese authorities, to the workers’ embassies, to the employment agencies, to the employers -– need to ask themselves what is driving these women to kill themselves or risk their lives trying to escape from high buildings.

In May, the human rights group launched a media campaign to encourage employers to provide their domestic workers with better working conditions, from timely payments of wages to weekly rest days.

The awareness campaign, called ‘Put yourself in her shoes,’ featured photos of elegant-looking Lebanese women dressed as maids along with provocative questions such as, “Have you ever worked for months without pay?’

In other Arab countries, the work conditions of migrant housemaids are also very difficult. This year, after claims of widespread abuse of mostly female Filipino domestic workers in Jordan, authorities in the Philippines imposed a ban in February on their citizens working in households there.

Raed Rafei in Beirut