THE BLOG

Maids Made Into Slaves in the Middle East

It is being called modern-day slavery by human rights groups, and is claiming the lives of hundreds of women each year in the Middle East.

Domestic labor is a deadly business for migrants in the region, where up to 30 women have committed suicide, or died trying to escape intolerable working conditions in the last few weeks alone. Rather than being anomalies, however, their deaths are the most recent in an alarming trend.

The women, mainly from developing countries Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, come in their millions to the Middle East in search of better pay and opportunities, but soon discover the move comes at a higher price.

Last month, 26-year-old Ethiopian Matente Kebede Zeditu, was found hanged from an olive tree in southern Lebanon. Kassaye Atsegenet, 24, jumped from the seventh floor of a Beirut building days later, having left a suicide note. Another, a Madagascan named only as Mampionona, leapt from the balcony to escape her high-rise virtual prison, tired of the daily grind of cleaning and minding the children.

Without the legislation to protect their basic human rights and with little access to justice in their host countries, it is not uncommon for many women working as maids to experience forced confinement, food deprivation, excessively long hours and even sexual abuse at the hands of their employers.

One of the girls left a simple parting message for her employer, reading "Here are your f***ing bedsheets, Madame. I will not be cleaning them today," before tying a noose around her neck and jumping from the balcony.

"She is one of the brave ones," a young woman named Angelique working as a maid for a Lebanese family in Beirut tells me. "I think about killing myself almost every day. When I am hanging clothes out to dry, I watch the tiny people going by from the seventh floor and wonder how long it would take me to hit the ground."

At 19-years-old, Angelique should not be thinking about ways to end her life, but that is all she has done since leaving her home in rural Ethiopia eight months ago.

"Anything would be better than my life as it is now," she says, during the first time out of her employer's house in over two months.

Angelique, who did not wish to give her full name, has had her hair cut short by her female employer, who complained she looked too pretty with it long. She is forced to wear the traditional pink maid's uniform six days a week, 14 hours a day, and sleeps on the floor of the kitchen.

Like many other women in her situation, she was lured to the Middle East with false promises made by the agency that employed her.

These agencies sell women to "sponsors," or employers, who then pay wages depending on their nationality. The newest on the market; Nepalese women can earn as little as $150 a month, while the older hands, the Filipinos - known for their good English - can make as much as $300.

"That is how they get trapped," says Nadim Houry, a migrant rights researcher with the US-based Human Rights Watch. "Most of them sign a 2-3 year contract, so, when they realize they are unhappy after a couple of months and want to leave they can't as they are unable to pay the money back.

"Many domestic workers are literally being driven to jump from balconies of the homes they are locked in to escape," Houry says.

Angelique gets just $175, which she sends home to support her family each month. "But I don't get paid if I am 'bad'," she says, "or when Madame is not in a good mood. I didn't get any money for four months when she was arguing with her husband."

It is not surprising human rights workers in the region are calling it slavery when these women are literally being worked to death, often for nothing in return.

Human Rights Watch has found that at least one woman dies a week in parts of the Middle East, while many more are injured trying to escape their abusive employers and harsh working conditions.

Lebanon, Jordan, UAE and Kuwait have seen the highest suicide rates, where many have their passports confiscated or are locked inside the house for years at a time.

In the past year, Ethiopia, Nepal and the Philippines took the step of banning all travel to Lebanon and Jordan due to the high number of suspicious deaths among the domestic worker community.

The ban has only pushed the trade underground, however, and many agencies now smuggle women from rural areas of the three countries who are desperate to escape poverty.

"There is a clear pattern here and it can't be ignored," Houry says. "People need to start really asking themselves what is driving all these women to want to kill themselves, and hopefully before any more leave in body bags."