Driven to Suicide: The Struggle of Lebanon's Foreign Workers

In Lebanon, domestic workers face abuse, beatings and slave-like conditions. Using the publicity of the web, one group is trying to change it

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The This Is Lebanon Facebook page, which gives a voice to foreign workers in the country
The This Is Lebanon Facebook page, which gives a voice to foreign workers in the countryCredit: Screenshot

A horrific scream shook the apartment where a young Ethiopian woman, Tigsit Adisi, worked in Beirut. Her employer, the mother of the home's family, discovered to her shock that Adisi had hanged herself from the balcony. According to reports on the Arab investigative news site Daraj, the father (whose name, like that of the mother, was withheld from the report) told police that Adisi had committed suicide.

The prosecution made do with the father’s version of events and did not summon the mother or the daughter for questioning. The daughter later said that Adisi had tried to commit suicide in the past by taking pills. As it turns out, 21-year-old Adisi, who had worked for the family for over a year, told her friends that she was being abused, beaten and was not allowed to leave the house or contact her parents. Her terrible distress apparently led her to take her own life, seeing no other way out.

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Adisi’s story is not unusual. Reports by human rights groups, based on prosecution reports in Lebanon, provide evidence of at least 25 cases of foreign workers, men and women, who committed suicide in 2018 due to their harsh circumstances. Or at least that was the claim, since in some of these cases, evidence indicates that they were murdered.

In one case, stab wounds were found in the neck of a young woman. Another young woman was choked to death by her own braids, which were wrapped around her neck. In another case, an Ethiopian worker “fell” from a balcony and was killed. Investigations usually end with the case being closed after the death is ruled a suicide. The employers' hand in these suicides is not investigated, although in at least one case a Lebanese woman was convicted of abusing her employee. She was sentenced to a year and a half in prison, even though the law allows for a five-year prison term in such cases.

About 250,000 male and female foreign workers are employed in Lebanon as domestics. Most are from Ethiopia, but some are from Nepal and the Philippines, alongside hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers. Lebanese law governing the employment of foreign workers requires each one to have a work permit, and employers are obliged to guarantee the employees' good conduct.

The law is draconian – it prohibits workers from leaving their job without the employer’s consent, and allows the employer to hold the worker’s passport and determine work conditions according to Lebanon’s labor law. But the moment a worker falls under an employer's authority, they become a slave. Their work day can be 12 to 18 hours long, salaries that have been agreed upon are not paid and there have been cases where payment has been delayed for months or even years. Beatings and sexual assault are the fate of many of the women workers. They are not allowed out of the house or to communicate with the outside world.

There is no replacing these workers. Lebanese citizens do not want to work as domestics, certainly not under such harsh conditions, while Syrians can at least open businesses and work well-paying jobs that are supervised by the government. The Syrian workers, by the way, have become serious competition for Lebanese workers, who have had to leave their jobs due to the influx of Syrians, many of them refugees who are willing to work for much less money than their Lebanese counterparts.

To advocate for the rights of the workers, or at least to give voice to their struggles, Dipendra Uprety, a worker from Nepal and an activist for workers' rights in Lebanon, started a website and Facebook page called This Is Lebanon. He posts the stories of foreign workers whose have been denied their rights or abused. Some of these stories are accompanied by videos filmed by the workers, and some are based on reports.

Uprety himself was one of these abused workers, whose own experience catalyzed him to help others. But he does not make do with posting the brutal stories alone; he and his organization approach abusive employers directly and demand that they give their workers their rights and pay their salaries in full. If they do not comply, they tell employers, they will be reported to the authorities. When this is not enough, the organization’s activists threaten to publish the employers’ names and details of the abuse on social media.

In a WhatsApp exchange published on the site, an employer admitted that he had not paid his domestic worker’s salary because he didn’t have the money, but pledged to pay it in full “on Monday.” The site's manager did not relent: “If you don’t pay and send me official confirmation of payment and a photo of your employee’s official work permit, we will publish the whole story on the web.”

An official permit requires that the employee receive their salary, and many employers try to evade it. In another case, activists on the site were threatened by an employer, who accused them of blackmail and warned that he would sue them. The employer demanded that the site’s activists see to it that two unpaid female employees who had fled from him “be returned by 2 o’clock.” The reply was adamant: “The workers will not return. Pay or become famous.”

It is difficult to assess the impact of the work of This Is Lebanon and other organizations working for the rights of foreign workers in the country. Without proper government enforcement and significant penalties, the foreign workers will find it difficult to exercise their rights. But shaming as a means of achieving their rights is an innovation. This is an original path of action that can produce social change in a country in which a person’s good name still holds value.