‘No-one wants to stay’: Ethiopia under pressure to rescue maids in Lebanon

‘No-one wants to stay’: Ethiopia under pressure to rescue maids in Lebanon

Robbie COREY-BOULET AFP

Hardship: Birtukan Mekuanint, 23, says she was trapped and exploited after she went to work in Lebanon as a maid

Hardship: Birtukan Mekuanint, 23, says she was trapped and exploited after she went to work in Lebanon as a maid (AFP Photo/Solan Kolli)

Addis Ababa (AFP) (news.yahoo)— – After she flew to Lebanon in 2017 to work as a maid for a family of eight, Birtukan Mekuanint managed to call her own relatives in Ethiopia only a handful of times.

So her father, Abiye Yefru, did not know what to think when Birtukan emerged unannounced from a taxi outside their home in Addis Ababa last week.

“Everyone was very emotional when she came to meet us,” Abiye told AFP, describing their reunion. “Me, I didn’t hold back my tears, and my wife cried even more.”

Soon, though, Abiye’s joy turned to anger as Birtukan recounted her hardship in Lebanon — an all-too-common tale of uncompensated labour in abusive conditions.

Now he’s joining the chorus of Ethiopians pleading with the government to bring back thousands of domestic workers stranded in Lebanon.

“It’s too difficult over there,” he said. “Of course they should be brought home.”

A quarter of a million migrants are employed as domestic workers in Lebanon, the majority of them Ethiopian.

A sponsorship system known as “kafala” leaves maids, nannies and carers outside the remit of Lebanese labour law and at the mercy of their employers.

The workers’ plight has come under the spotlight in recent weeks as Lebanon grapples with its worst economic crisis in decades, with dozens of women kicked out by their employers and dumped outside the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut.

Yet Ethiopian women have for years endured nonpayment of wages, forced confinement and physical and sexual violence, activists say.

Making matters worse, Ethiopian authorities have turned a blind eye to the abuses, said Banchi Yimer, founder of an NGO that advocates for migrant workers’ rights.

“I would say they do nothing,” she said. “Nothing has been done by the Ethiopian government.”

-A broken system-

Like many Ethiopian women, Birtukan believed the brokers who told her moving to Lebanon would be an easy way to improve her family’s fortunes.

For 7,000 Ethiopian birr (around $200), they promised to arrange her travel and place her with a family that would pay $200 (177 euros) a month while covering her expenses.