When suicide is the only escape

A revolution is needed to push the Lebanese government’s hand to make the requisite reforms to its labour laws.

A Lebanese activist holds a sign in refe
Alem Dechesa, an Ethiopian maid working in Lebanon, allegedly took her own life on March 14 after experiencing severe abuse [EPA]

Washington, DC – For Alem Dechesa, death was the only way out. For thousands of voiceless Ethiopian domestic workers working in Lebanon, suicide is the only avenue for escaping a nihilistic existence. 

I witnessed the range of human rights abuses endured by Ethiopian maids – from both the perspective of a Lebanese insider and a human rights attorney – and found that Dechesa’s death was anything but a horrific aberration, but a common consequence of the modern-day slavery industry in Lebanon.  

Inside Story – The plight of domestic workers abroad

Dechesa took her life on March 14, after experiencing severe beatings, mental abuse and potentially more, from her employer. A video, showing Ali Mahfouz brutally beating Dechesa in front of the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut, went viral after she took her life. The video, viewed by millions around the world and propelling the story into the global news spotlight, uncovered the dehumanisation and brutality endured by Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon.

Poverty, lack of viable employment alternatives and desperation, give fertile ground for traffickers to exploit despondent Ethiopian women. Once the birthplace of mankind, Ethiopia today serves as a cradle for traffickers pursuing profit and Lebanese nationals, seeking cheap labour – a virtual one-stop shop for inexpensive and convenient servitude.   

Recipe for enslavement

An unsavoury blend of Lebanese ethnocentrism, racial animus toward Africans, human trafficking and the debt bondage of maids upon arrival from Ethiopia, make up a recipe for contemporary enslavement. While the images of silent and submissive African maids trapped inside cosmopolitan Beirut apartments, condos and villas seemed juxtaposed at first, the modern portrait of Middle Eastern slavery – I gradually discovered through on-the-ground research, interviewing nearly 50 maids, and an examination of Lebanese labour laws and observance of human rights – was a common picture and practice.     

Witnessing the living conditions of these maids – from being made to sleep on kitchen or bathroom floors in small, congested apartments, to being denied the opportunity to travel home for vacation – I was prompted to search for more. I challenged family and friends, who employed undocumented maids, many of whom were working or middle class, only to hear unapologetic echoes including, “Everybody here has a maid, no matter your economic class”, or “They have no opportunities in Ethiopia, and they are grateful for the work”. 

However, the more maids I spoke to – oftentimes surreptitiously – the more I heard pleas for help and a desire to return home. The deeper I dug, the more akin to chattel or classical slavery the maid industry in Lebanon resembled. 

What I found was an ugly underbelly of rape, subjugation, violence and comprehensive dehumanisation – underlined by a pervasive and entrenched racism toward brown and black people – which looked, smelled and felt like slavery.

Many of these women wanted to return to their lives in Ethiopia, but denied that wish due to tallied debts, confiscation of their passports and travel documents and lack of funds. As evident in the video, Dechesa was desperately fighting to flee from Mahfouz’s bondage, in front of the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut – an attempt many Ethiopians have pursued, contemplated or fell short of undertaking.    

Lebanese-style slavery

I was an Arab American – a geographically malleable identity that the United States marked me as a minority, and at worse, a potential menace. However, my existential standing was turned on its head when in Lebanon, and felt I was part of an oppressive majority that reduced Ethiopian women into – as Cheryl I Harris of the UCLA School of Law states – “racially contingent forms of property”. 

Migrant workers face abuse in Lebanon

As a lawyer for the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, I coordinated an independent study, examining the illegal trafficking of and human rights abuses suffered by Ethiopian domestic workers. I met with Lebanese government officials, human rights organisations, and interviewed 55 maids. 

While I anticipated a list of human rights abuses, my research uncovered what was nothing short of a full-fledged atrocity that resembled slavery. Although it cannot be said that all cases of trafficked Ethiopian women working in Lebanon rise to slavery-like proportions, numerous accounts expose cases that merit, if not supersede, label. I returned to the US alarmed, but empowered by the courage of the women I interviewed and befriended.

My on-the-ground work with Ethiopian maids, the research compiled and the energy it galvanised, culminated with the, “The Trafficking of Ethiopian Domestic Workers into Lebanon: Navigating Through a Novel Passage of the International Made Trade”, published in the Berkeley Journal of International Law.

Being half Lebanese, I aspired to be an ardent critic of the abuses that drove Dechesa to suicide on March 14. I documented the symptoms – mainly poverty in Ethiopia – that drove women to leave their families and go for work aboard. I spoke about the contractual misrepresentations, the glamorous lifestyles and exaggerated salaries promised to them by traffickers. 

A network of legal and customary practices bind maids to their work immediately upon arrival from Ethiopia. Domestic workers are often stripped of their freedom of movement. Many are virtually imprisoned in their employers’ homes. Lebanese employers often lock the maids indoors for fear of their fleeing. 

To prevent escape, it has become common practice for employers to seize the domestic worker’s legal documents, threaten her with various punishments and work her to physical exhaustion. Furthermore, a standard $3,000 penalty is levied if the domestic worker leaves the position before the contract expires, or if she returns to Ethiopia. A well-orchestrated system is in place to curtail a victim’s ability to flee or “break” the contract and in turn, to scare and tire her into submission. Therefore, for maids like Dechesa, taking “your own life” is the lone avenue for escaping contemporary enslavement. 

The explanations, particularly from Lebanese government officials, paint Dechesa’s suicide as an isolated incident or a consequence of cultural racism. However, as referenced above, Lebanon is home to fervent anti-black racism, which makes working as a maid for Ethiopian women sometimes a fatal or death-defying employment option. Racism toward individuals of African descent, like Dechesa and the community of Ethiopian maids she represents, are routinely called “abeed”, Arabic for “slave”.   


Lebanese labour laws are built upon the entrenched racism, via the “Kafala System”, an arcane tradition that comprehensively binds the maid to her employer. Maids, like Dechesa, depend on their employers for food, lodging, health benefits (if any), whereby, as Lebanese lawyer Rolan Taok concludes, “Creates complete dependency which bring about total vulnerability and opens the door wide to exploitation”. Since the maids live with their employers, the lines between work and personal life are often blurred, leaving every dimension of her life vulnerable to utter and comprehensive control.  

Lebanon’s Labour Code excludes trafficked “domestic servants” from legal protection. In fact, the Lebanese government only ratified the Trafficking Protocol in October 2005, approximately three years after the instrument was signed. To legally work in Lebanon, foreigners must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Labour. The Lebanese Code of Labour extends full social rights to foreign workers who come in legally and successfully obtain a work permit. However, the law is malleable and enables employers to circumvent it and not register their maids with social security or health insurance. 

In addition, the falsification of documents, including the work permit, passports, visa, medical reports and a residence permit, is also prevalent. Oftentimes, the victim is unaware that her documents were fraudulently procured. Yet, the victim alone is punished if the authorities seize falsified documents. Criminal charges are seldom, if ever, imposed on the Lebanese employer who facilitates the illegal trafficking and employment, of a maid.  

Domestic workers abused in the Gulf

Abuse of maids is facilitated by the Lebanese Labour Code, which fails to put forth legally viable contract guidelines that are based on consensual agreement, universal contract principles and human rights standards. Indeed, the racial subjugation and commoditisation of Ethiopian maids is reified and legitimised in the Labour Code.

In addition, the Code does not mandate maximum work hours or workdays. Once these women are within the confines of the home, their employers have carte blanche to not only dictate the amount of hours and days to be worked, but also make orders that supersede the employment relationship. 

The International Labour Organisation recommends that a model domestic employer contract should be appended to all labour agreements and should be translated into language that all parties – including the domestic worker – can understand. Yet, the Lebanese government has not taken active steps to introduce such, or similar measures.

Dechesas’s death

I returned to Beirut last June, on business, and attended a party for East African domestic workers at a progressive downtown café, T-Marbouta. The café’s owner, Abdul-Rahman Zahzah, organised it because, “These women are human beings – who like you, me and everybody else – like to dance and enjoy life. Unfortunately, in Lebanon, these maids never have the chance to have fun or live. This party is a reminder that they are human.”   

Dechesa may have been at that party. Many of the maids, who wore temporary smiles hiding physical scars and psychological abuse at evening, likely suffered atrocities that were not captured by videotape, experienced inhumanity that was never tweeted or hash-tagged on social media networks and never received global headlines after they took their lives. However, Dechesa’s death and the video, capturing the beating that precipitated her suicide, may mobilise a new revolt against Lebanese slavery. 

YouTube, social networking and viral activism have equipped revolution and reform-minded elements in the Arab World with a new brand of weaponry to challenge the old guard and question the status quo. For Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon – given no protection under Lebanese labour or criminal laws, doubly victimised by unenforced human rights mechanisms, and for decades treated as invisible and anonymous commodities not persons – a single video may spark a needed revolution for their bleak status quo.   

This revolution is needed to push the Lebanese government’s hand to make the requisite reforms to its labour laws, introduce harsher punitive consequences for all-too common criminals like Mahfouz, and in the interim, pass immediate emergency legislation to ensure that foreign workers – no matter their race or skin complexion – should be made to endure the brand of brutality that drives them to suicide.   

On March 23, Mahfouz was charged with abetting Dechesa’s death. However, he was not taken into custody. If not for the video, released virally and seen by millions, would these charges have been brought against Mafhouz? Will justice be exacted for the hundreds of known and thousands of anonymous, victims whose abuse or deaths was not captured by video, seen on YouTube and distributed through social networking channels? 

The Lebanese government and the greater weight of its people, has demonstrated over time that they will not make the necessary reforms for the sake of Ethiopian domestic workers, or a genuine cultural commitment to human rights. However, in the wake of Dechesa’s suicide and the video viewed by millions throughout the world, Lebanese slavery now has a face, name and voice, which call for the world to take action.   

Khaled A Beydoun is a Washington, DC-based attorney and author.

Follow him on Twitter: @Legyptian