Photos by Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau

When Rose Adhiambo left Kenya for a job in Lebanon, she could have never imagined that six months later she would be returning home in a coffin.

Twenty-four-year-old Adhiambo did what many poor young women around the world do: she left her homeland in search of a better life abroad. This brought her to Interlead Limited, a Kenyan website that promises to help "job seekers to find top jobs."

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What the Interlead Limited website did not say was that Adhiambo would be working as a maid in slave-like conditions. Her parents, who live in Nairobi, thought their daughter had gotten a plum job in the Middle East. It wasn't until the girl called and complained about her employer's treatment that the family knew there was a problem. Adhimabo told her aunt, Margaret Olwande, that she planned to escape. "Tomorrow is the D-Day. Please pray for me," she said to Olwande in a telephone call in August, according to The Standard, a Kenyan newspaper that covered the story.

Two weeks later, the body of an unnamed Kenyan migrant worker--presumed to be Adhiambo--was found on the first floor balcony of a building in Beirut's Sahel Alma neighborhood. A Lebanese newspaper, Al-Akhbar, reported that the worker had fallen from the sixth floor while trying to escape her employer's house by hanging from a nylon rope.

Adhiambo's relatives have still not been able to locate her body, though the employer, speaking through an agent, did confirm her death. The Lebanese consulate in Nairobi gave Adhiambo's family the names of four hospitals, all of which claimed they did not have her remains.

But the clearest indication of how little Interlead Limited cares about Adhiambo came when The Standard contacted the organization following her death: "Our business ends after we find a sponsor (employer)," said Ali Muhamad, managing director of the agency.

Unfortunately, Adhiambo's death was not an anomaly. Human Rights Watch estimates there are 200,000 migrant domestic workers employed in Lebanon, primarily from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Nepal. The vast majority are women. The money earned by these workers is a booming business for their countries: migrant domestic workers in Lebanon alone sent over $90 million overseas in the first half of 2009.

Recruitment agencies in the workers' home countries are responsible for the abuse as well. Many lure vulnerable young women with tales of lucrative jobs in far-off cities. Human Rights Watch reports that agency fees are usually paid in the country of origin by the women wishing to migrate. These fees, which range from $200 to $315, must be paid before departure. Many women cannot afford the fees, so they end up going into debt before they even arrive at their jobs. Often their first few months' salary goes toward repaying the money.

Once these women arrive in Lebanon, they are given a standard contract in Arabic, which most cannot read. It typically offers less money than the original contract and sets stricter terms. Although the Lebanese Ministry of Labor initiated a standard contract in January 2009, outlining the responsibilities of the employers to the workers, there are still loopholes: while workers are entitled to a day of rest, it is up to the employers whether they have the right to leave the house on their days off. 

And the kafeel, or sponsorship, system that binds a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon to a specific employer is rife with abuse. Lebanese labor laws exclude migrant domestic workers from protections such as paid leave, benefits, workers' compensation, and a guaranteed minimum wage. If a worker leaves an employer for any reason (even if she is being abused), she loses her legal status in the country and risks being detained, fined, and deported. Even lodging a complaint against her employer can mean risking her job and even her life.

Many employers and labor agencies also instill fear in workers by confiscating their passports, which makes their already fragile legal status even more precarious. In a case that HRW investigated, a judge in Beirut dismissed a complaint two women had brought against their recruitment agency for taking their passports. The judge defended his dismissal by saying, "It is natural for the employer to confiscate the maid's passport and keep it with him, in case she tries to escape from his house to work in another without compensating him."

These abuses lead many to try to run away. HRW found that, on average, at least one migrant domestic worker dies every week in Lebanon. In August 2010 alone there were six deaths. These deaths are primarily due to suicides or bungled escapes--many, like Adhiambo's, falls from high buildings.

I recently spent an afternoon at an agency in a suburb of Beirut, watching a secretary shouting at a 24-year old migrant domestic worker from Madagascar. After one year of a three-year contract, the worker had refused to go back to her employer because she missed her 3-year-old child back home.

"Did you read the contract before you signed it?" the secretary demanded. "Did you read it?"

The girl dug through her bag and pulled out a brown envelope, showing the secretary a piece of paper. The secretary waved the paper in the air, pointing at the girl's signature. "Did you sign this?" she asked. "Did you know what it said when you signed it? Did you read it?"

The reality was that if the worker did not go back to her job--and could not find the money for her return plane ticket--she would most likely be placed in a detention center until her embassy or a non-governmental organization came to her rescue. From there she would be deported, but not before being imprisoned for an indeterminate amount of time in an overcrowded, hot, dirty cell with minimal food.

I visited two different detention centers in Beirut--Verdun and Adlieh--to meet with domestic workers who had been detained for allegedly running away or committing crimes such as theft against their employers. At both centers, young women depended on friends and strangers to bring them necessities like water, a toothbrush, and sufficient meals. For those without friends and family in Lebanon, their time in detention was far less bearable.

Some countries are taking action. The Philippines, Ethiopia, and Nepal have banned their citizens from going to Lebanon to work, but poverty has pushed many to ignore the bans. Meanwhile, there has been some progress in other parts of the region: Jordan recently amended its labor law to include migrant domestic workers, guaranteeing protections afforded to other workers. In Bahrain, the law requires that there be no more than two weeks between court hearings, meaning that most cases can be resolved in three months.

But in Lebanon, migrant domestic workers remain beholden to employers who have complete control over their destinies. The truth of the matter, explains Nadim Houry, the Beirut director at Human Rights Watch, is that it's not just a question of changing the laws--it's also a question of implementing the laws. "These are abuses that are happening behind closed doors in the home," he says. "And the government is reluctant to interfere."

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