Faustina Tay, a 23-year-old Ghanaian worker who came to Lebanon in May 2019, was found dead on March 13 in a car park under the home where she worked in Beirut. The initial investigation concluded that she committed suicide, and this conclusion was confirmed by the forensic doctor’s report. However, the dozens of messages that she had sent before her death to the group This is Lebanon calling for help to escape her suffering in her sponsor’s house – the last just 18 hours before her death – opened the doors for a broader investigation. This became even more likely once her case drew local and global attention, with supermodel Naomi Campbell calling upon African women to boycott Lebanon and Al Jazeera English publishing an investigative report on her death by journalist Timour Azhari.

 

Tay, who had come to Lebanon via a foreign recruitment agent, wrote “God please help me” in the last call for help that she sent to This is Lebanon. News of her death arrived 18 hours later. Previously, she had sent dozens of text and voice messages describing her abuse by members of the family she was living with, which This is Lebanon has published in a detailed account on its website. In one of the voice messages, Tay repeated, “I’m very very scared... They don’t have sympathy for human beings... they are very very heartless people... I’m very very very scared”. In these messages, she explained that she was denied privacy, which compounded her fear: “They can easily have access to me because I sleep in the kitchen – always the door is open”. She also indicated that she had asked her sponsor to return her to her country, but he beat her instead. She said he took her to the recruitment agency twice, where the owner also beat her, and that the owner and the sponsor promised twice that they would return her to Ghana if she worked without pay for a few months so that the family could save the money needed to pay her travel expenses, but they lied both times. This is Lebanon also states that when Tay asked to leave the job, they demanded US$2,000 from her.

 

The activists Tay contacted were shocked by her death. In its report, This is Lebanon stressed that a worker’s departure from an employer’s home is no easy matter, especially as “there are surveillance cameras in every street in Dahieh”.

According to the report, her relative Joshua relayed that her wage had been withheld for more than two months, she was denied breaks and weekly days off and she was mistreated, including  being repeatedly beaten and even sexually assaulted.

 

The Ministry of Labor Requests Further Investigation

As in many cases of domestic worker deaths in Lebanon, the police report and the report of the forensic doctor who examined Tay’s body concluded that her death was a suicide without investigating its backdrop or whether the crime of murder or incitement to suicide lay behind it. According to This is Lebanon’s report, the forensic doctor concluded that there were no marks of assault or physical violence while at the same time stating that the only visible injury was a bruise on her scalp “caused by falling from a high place”. The report that the doctor sent to the police states that Tay jumped from the sponsor’s fourth-floor apartment in an attempt to kill herself.

On April 1, after Tay’s death attracted public attention, the Ministry of Labor issued a statement indicating that the ministry’s Inspection Department had “followed the case of the suicide of worker Faustinae Tay” and it was now “in the hands of the competent judicial bodies so that the appropriate measures can be taken”. A source in the Ministry of Labor told The Legal Agenda that the Inspection Department interviewed the sponsor and the recruitment agency’s owner and then sent Mount Lebanon’s Appellate Public Prosecution Office a request for further investigation into the case. The source also said that the Ministry of Labor has blacklisted the sponsor, whereas it is waiting for the judicial investigation before making the appropriate decision regarding the recruitment agency whose owner the victim said beat her multiple times.

On his part, the recruitment agency owner denied that he beat the young woman in an interview with The Legal Agenda. He claimed that, “When she came to the agency with her sponsor, I called the recruitment agency in Ghana for her and she spoke with it in her language”. He said that after the call, he asked the Ghanaian agent about her complaint, and the agent said, “She just wants to return to Ghana and she didn’t make any complaint about mistreatment”. The agency owner also mentioned that the investigations into this matter are underway: “I was interviewed in the Information Branch and the Ministry of Labor”. The man deemed that “the recruitment agency is responsible toward the worker and sponsor for the first six months of work. In other words, if the worker wants to change jobs, it helps her. But in Tay’s case, she had exceeded this period. Nevertheless, I received her to hear her complaint”. He added, “I don’t have the power to remove her from the job – that’s up to her sponsor”.

As for the sponsor, he said that he found it strange that Tay would send all these messages. Like the agency owner, he denied beating her: “We were treating her well, and she was eating with us at the same table”. He added, “I didn’t withhold her wage. Rather, I was putting the money aside for her to give to her later”. He described all her claims as “fabrication”. When asked why he did not send her back to Ghana when she requested, he said, “I told her that she would travel after Ramadan, and I had paid money to bring her into the country”.

This tendency for sponsors to see their domestic workers primarily as a financial investment is common in Lebanon. Again and again, they disallow workers from leaving the job on the pretext of the money they paid to bring the workers into the country. Sometimes, workers are transferred from one sponsor to another in exchange for the same amount the first sponsor paid. The Legal Agenda raised this issue in a previous article titled “An Ethiopian for 2.25 Million Lira: How Did We Reach the Point of Selling Domestic Workers in Lebanon?”[1]

The sponsor also told The Legal Agenda that he had been interviewed in the Information Branch and the Dahieh Investigation Detachment, as well as the Ministry of Labor, without providing any more information.

 

Will There Be Posthumous Justice for Tay?: Beyond the Willful Suicide Hypothesis

The worst part of Tay’s story – besides her death, of course – is that because the airport is closed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, her body could not be transported to Ghana, so she had to be buried in Lebanon. Hence, her family could not bid their farewells. The family is communicating with the Anti-Racism Movement in Lebanon to prepare a court case over their daughter’s cause, according to lawyer Nermine Sibai, who is pursuing the case.

Sibai told The Legal Agenda, “We’re waiting for all the documents in order to initiate the claim”. She deems that, “There are question marks surrounding the circumstances of the case, especially as Tay had expressed a desire to live via the messages that she sent calling for help”. She stressed the importance of further investigation for several reasons, most notably that, “The security authorities have a pattern of closing investigations on the basis that [the death] was a suicide without expanding to determine the motives for the suicide or whether it really was a suicide and not a murder”. From another angle, “There is doubt about the credibility of the forensic doctor who prepared the report as he was previously accused of falsifying a forensic report”.

Sibai explained that while she cannot say for certain that a murder occurred, “We need to consider all hypotheses, and in Tay’s case there are many indications of several crimes, such as forced labor and violence. If it was a suicide, there are indications that someone drove her to suicide, and these things are punished by Lebanese law”. Article 553 of the Penal Code punishes anyone who incites a person by any means to commit suicide or helps them do so with 10 years of imprisonment.[2] Moreover, the section pertaining to human trafficking in Article 586 of the Penal Code includes suicide among the types of harm that a human trafficking victim might incur. It stipulates “10 to 12 years of imprisonment... when the crime involves serious harm to the victim or another person or the death of the victim or another person, including death resulting from suicide”. These two articles are a cornerstone of the case that Sibai is preparing.

From this angle, the Kafala system, with the exploitation and impunity it allows, can be an impetus for suicide in many cases. Yet so far, the courts have not witnessed any trial on this basis. The only mentionable instance [that came close] is the case that lawyer Mohana Ishak from the organization KAFA (Enough) Violence & Exploitation filed in 2013 against an employer for committing the crime of “inducing suicide”, stipulated in Article 553 of the Penal Code, against her Ethiopian worker. In the complaint, Ishak explained that the worker was being beaten, assaulted, denied food, and not allowed to leave the home. Hence, suicide seemed to her to be the only means of escaping the exploitation and tyranny allowed by the Kafala system.

 

Rights Organizations Demand Further Investigation

Several rights organizations signed a joint statement demanding a “thorough and transparent investigation into Tay’s death, as we continue to call for justice for the thousands of cases of violence, abuse, and deaths of migrant workers in Lebanon”. The statement deemed that Tay is “yet another migrant domestic worker to lose her life under the kafala system”.

The statement questioned the forensic doctor’s report deeming that Tay died from a head injury resulting from “falling from a high place” and that her body bore “no marks of physical assault”.

According to the statement, “Faustina’s story is not an exceptional case”. Rather, it is “one of the numerous tragedies caused by the Kafala system”.* The statement adds that, “These working conditions are made possible by the kafala system, which fosters exploitative relationships behind closed doors” and cites General Security statistics indicating that “two migrant workers die weekly in Lebanon”. Moreover, the statement criticizes the authorities’ handling of domestic worker deaths “as suicides or failed attempts at escaping employers’ houses, absolving perpetrators of any real consequences”.

 

The statement ends with several demands. The most important is a serious investigation into Tay’s death and a fair trial to ensure justice for her and her family and to hold the perpetrators accountable. The others encompass all domestic workers, calling for full investigation by the Internal Security Forces, General Security, and the Ministry of Labor into all migrant worker deaths and abuse and referral of the cases to the competent judicial branch and Public Prosecution offices; stronger measures by the Ministry of Labor, particularly from the Inspection Department and regarding the closure of the recruitment agencies implicated; and an end to the practice of classifying migrant worker deaths as suicides without proper investigation. The statement concludes by demanding an end to the Kafala system, which “directly causes the abuse, exploitation, and death of migrant domestic workers”.

 

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

 

Keywords: Lebanon, Faustina Tay, Kafala system, Exploitation, Abuse, Domestic worker, Migrant worker death

 

[1] Laure Ayoub, “‘Ithiyubiyaa.. bi-Milyunayn wa-250 Alf Lira’: Kayfa Balaghna Marhalat ‘Bay'’ al-'Amilat fi Lubnan?”, The Legal Agenda, 10 April 2020.

[2] Article 553 stipulates,

 

Whoever incites a person by any means to commit suicide or helps him, in one of the ways mentioned in Article 219 § 1, 2, and 4, to kill himself shall be punished with up to ten years of incarceration if the suicide occurred or with three months to two years of imprisonment if the suicide attempt led to permanent injury or disability. If the person who was incited or helped to commit suicide is a juvenile below 15 years of age or mentally handicapped, the punishments for incitement to or involvement in murder shall be applied.

 

* Translation note: This sentence only appears in the statement’s Arabic version.