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The dark side of domestic ‘servitude’

Dozens of domestic workers end up committing suicide or crimes in absence of adequate support system

By Sawsan Tabazah - Dec 31,2017 - Last updated at Jan 02,2018

Art by Ahmad Jimzawi

AMMAN — “I just wanted to end my life because my life is not good; I have tried my best to serve them… I respected them… Why they are like this with me?,”  Sima recalled of what was going in her head before she jumped from the third floor’s balcony after stabbing her employer earlier in December in Amman’s Deir Ghbar area.

The 33-year-old domestic helper says she had suffered stress, insomnia and fear due to continuous threats of suffering and punishment and forced work to pay back the recruitment fees.  She is currently lying in hospital and waiting for the legal case to be settled.

Sima, not her real name, survived the suicide attempt, ending up with spinal cord and brain injuries and she underwent a seven-hour surgery, according to her surgeon who requested anonymity. 

She came to Jordan to make money that would help her raise her family. Recalling the few days before the incident with details, she said in a recent interview with The Jordan Times: “On November 27, maybe it was Sunday, I had diarrhoea and felt low energy, I was tired and told mama and she gave me medicine.” 

Her condition went from bad to worse a couple of days later and required  medical care.

Since that day, Sima claimed, the family’s treatment changed as her “sir” was pushing her “roughly” on their way to the hospital and back home. 

Thereafter, she could not sleep until the day of the incident. “Every time I closed my eyes, I woke up startled; I heard noises from the upper apartment and steps around my room; the elevator was going up and down; this was the first time this happened and it continued every night.” 

“[The next day] madam said that two men will get me out from my room by force and will take me into another house [where] they won’t give food or any of my needs... She said they would make me suffer, and work and no pay… I don’t know why she said that and I don’t know who those two men were and why they would make me suffer.” 

She also claimed that both the husband and the wife threatened to send her back to the recruitment agency where she would be beaten until they find her another employer. 

On the day of the incident, the “madam” said that Sima was going back to the agency but then she was asked to do the housework. “I felt confused: Why would she tell me to work if I was going to the agency,” she noted. 

Amid such fear and confusion, and eavesdropping on conversations by the housewife, which the worker interpreted as a plot to kill her (an expert has said it was likely hallucination), Sima decided to hit first. “I brought the knife and went to her in the bedroom and stabbed her to the neck and the face.”

Sima documented her sufferings in her diary which she believed that someone was reading.

The housewife said in the primary investigation report, a copy of which was obtained  by The Jordan Times, that the domestic worker’s journals reflected “a state of depression”. 

The woman, who was in a fair condition, told The Jordan Times she was fine, but declined to talk about the incident and tell her side of the story. 

 

Psychological abuse 

 

Rahaf Muhyiddin, a psychotherapist at the Jordanian Women’s Union (JWU), said that threatening is a form of psychological abuse (PA) which precedes physical or sexual abuse and destabilises the targeted person’s social and professional life. 

According to the  expert, exploitation within the work environment like the confiscation of the worker’s personal belongings , including passport and mobile phone, and controlling when she calls her family and what she eats and when, precedes PA. 

A suicidal trend, she added, is the result of anxiety and depression that develops when the employer turns a blind eye to her personal and psychological needs. 

In Sima’s condition, depression, anxiety, illness and insomnia, which could have been accompanied with hallucinations, caused a decline in her psychological condition, and she may have, as a consequence, taken unconscious decisions by stabbing her employer and attempting to kill herself, Muhyiddin said. 

According to the figures obtained from JWU Shelter for Abused Women, the majority of the shelter’s residents among domestic workers experienced various forms of psychological abuse.

In 2015, the shelter received 121 domestic workers suffering psychological abuse, 71 others in 2016, and 45 cases in the first 11 months of 2017.

The free medical dictionary defines psychological abuse as a form of “mistreatment in which there is intent to cause mental or emotional pain or injury that includes verbal aggression, statements intended to humiliate or infantilise, insults, threats of abandonment or institutionalisation. PA results in stress, social withdrawal, long-term or recalcitrant depression and anxiety”.

The development of depression is not measured with the length of time, but with certain phases: An individual experience that leads the person to decide to end his/her life; it can develop in days, weeks, months or years, Muhyiddin added.

“Leading her [Sima] to believe that no one will help her even the agency and that she might work for another employer who might place her under harsh working conditions led her to take unconscious decisions like stabbing her employer and killing herself,” Muhyiddin said. 

Najia Al Zubi, the shelter’s projects manager, said that all abused victims suffered labour exploitations that ranged between passport confiscation, late or no salaries, tight control of their lives by their employers, no days off and excessive working hours. 

Although seizing and hiding passports of others is criminalised by law, it has become a common act by employers, who keep it as a guarantee of the worker’s stay to avoid paying the overstay fines in case of absconding, Zubi noted.

‘Accidents’ 

According to a retrospective, descriptive study of medico-legal case files involving the deaths of full-time domestic workers that occurred between 2006 and 2016 by the University of Jordan Hospital (JUH)’s Forensic Medicine Department found that unnatural deaths comprise the majority amounting to 76 per cent of the overall cases; at least three of them occurred every year. 

“Forty-eight out of 63 were found to be unnatural deaths, and 15 were natural deaths resulting from medical or physical factors,” Majd Seliti, one of the researchers at the JUH, told The Jordan Times. 

Seliti, a sixth year medical student and a co-researcher along with the director of JUH’s forensic medicine department Hassan Abdulrahman and resident doctors Muayad Bader and Ibraheem Habash, said that suicides, accidents mainly involving falling incidents, and murders are classified as unnatural death. 

Seventy-five per cent of the unnatural deaths were considered suicides (36 cases out of 48) while sexual abuse or old injuries were evident in 19 per cent of the unnatural death cases, he noted. 

“I think one of the most dangerous things that we have found that almost all the cases except for one were involving women in childbearing age. Some of them died due to neglect and lack of medical care in early stages of their disease or injury. Even in cases of natural death, many of them could have been prevented. We found cases where domestic workers died due to dehydration and appendicitis, which do not cause death usually.”

“Many of these cases were closed as suicides or accidents like falling incidents. Such cases wouldn’t have to be necessarily actual suicides. Rather, they might involve criminal or psychological elements,” Sleiti said.

Meanwhile, Hussein Omari, director of the Domestic Workers’ Complaints Division at Adel Centre for Legal Aid stressed that investigations into cases involving domestic workers are normally “superficial”, noting the numerous falling incidents, which are normally classified as “accidents” by investigators.

Suicides and crimes 

Continuous attempts failed to obtain figures and statistics from official sources about suicides and crimes committed by domestic workers. 

Life has awarded Sima another chance to live and to tell her story, unlike many others whose stories have died with them. 

 The only statistics were obtained from records made available by the Bangladeshi embassy, indicating that between 2012 and this year, 23 Bangladeshi domestic workers ended their lives by hanging themselves. 

According to Sleiti, 89 per cent of hanging deaths were by Bengali domestic workers and 88 per cent (14 out of 16 cases) of falling incidents were by Indonesian workers.

 Ahmad Awad, director of the Phenix Centre for Economics and Information Studies, said that “domestic work resembles modern slavery” as they are not secured the rights of regular employees such as sick leaves, social security or even the normal eight-hour job, let alone the freedom of movement in days off and workplace after they finish work. 

“The prevalent type of relationship between the employer and the domestic worker is more like the owner and the slave, who is never treated like any regular employee,” Awad noted.

“Controlling what they eat, when they sleep, what they can do in their leisure time, who they can meet, where they go and when they leave and get back home is how slaves are treated,” Awad said.

Linda Kalash, Tamkeen Fields for Aid’s executive director, said some falling incidents are either an attempt by the worker to end her life or a failed escape attempt. 

 

Employers

 

Maha Saad had her fair share of “harsh experience” 12 years ago when her Indonesian domestic worker “fell from the fourth floor in an attempt to abscond”.

“After working three months for us she started asking to go back home. She used to work hard, but she seemed to have problems. We asked the recruitment agency to keep her at the agency until we arrange her travel, but they refused. The next morning, at 5am we woke up to the care taker’s knocks on the door, telling us that our maid was lying down near the building and she could be dead,” Saad said, noting that she survived and suffered a complex fracture to her pelvis. 

“She attempted to escape from the hospital a couple of times and during that time she had uncontrollable crying and screaming, the hospital refused to keep her and advised us to send her to the National Psychiatry Centre in Fuheis, where she was diagnosed with psychological illness,” Saad said. 

“A psychiatrist accompanied her back home, because the doctors and the police agreed that she would expose other passengers to risk during the 14-hour flight to Indonesia due to her instable state where she might need anxiety medications,” Saad explained. 

Muntaha Bradweil recalled her family’s “suffering” with a domestic worker 10 years ago, who was “sad due to her husband’s physical abuse”. 

“She tried to cut her vein twice… we were afraid and had to fasten her hands and legs to prevent her from hurting herself before sending her back to the agency,” Bradweil said. 

Some “heart wrenching” crimes were committed by Bangladeshi domestic workers, which have led the Ministry of Labour to believe that to stop recruiting them is the solution.

The ministry made the move in September, citing the would-be workers’ failure to provide a clean criminal record, according to Mohammad Moniruzzaman, first secretary (Labour) at the Bangladeshi embassy.  

Moniruzzaman noted there are 50,000 domestic workers in Jordan from Bangladesh, whose recruitment started in 2012.

 

ILO Domestic Workers Convention 

 

According to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) website, Jordan did not ratify the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (C189) yet, concerning decent work for domestic workers. 

The convention holds member countries committed to take measures to ensure that domestic workers enjoy effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment, and violence.

It also states that domestic workers are not obliged to remain in the household or with household members during periods of daily and weekly rest or annual leave and are entitled to keep in their possession their travel and identity documents.

Furthermore, C189 states that domestic workers are entitled to terminate the employment contract and change employer.

 

Precautionary measures 

 

The psychotherapist said that the domestic worker’s ignorance of her contract’s terms and rights and lack of awareness of the legal channels and access to those who can help her in case of abuse or exploitation makes her more vulnerable to exploitation.

Nothing can prove that those domestic workers who commit crimes or suicides have no personality or psychological issues before they come to Jordan, even if they hold medical reports, as many of these documents have turned up false after the workers underwent medical tests in Jordan, the psychotherapist said.

Muhyiddin suggested testing the psychological and mental health of domestic workers as well as raising awareness workshops as precautionary measures, saying that such tests are easy and can be conducted within sessions that range between 60 to 90 minutes, in cooperation with NGOs.

 

Sima might have or might not have suffered psychological issues before she started her job, but lack of access to help and support must have been a reason for the tragedy that she inflicted on herself and her employer.  

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