Lebanon’s migrant workers’ plight worsens as crises multiply

BEIRUT (AP) – Long before the pandemic struck, they lived and worked in conditions that rights groups called exploitative – low wages, long hours, no labour law protections.

Now, some 250,000 registered migrant labourers in Lebanon – maids, garbage collectors, farm hands and construction workers – are growing more desperate as a crippling economic and financial crisis sets in, coupled with coronavirus restrictions.

Lebanon’s unprecedented foreign currency crisis means that many migrants have not been paid for months or that the value of salaries is down by more than half. Others have lost their jobs after employers dumped them on the streets or outside their embassies.

“We are invisible,” said Banchi Yimer, an Ethiopian former domestic worker who founded a group that campaigns for domestic workers’ rights in Lebanon. “We don’t even exist for our governments, not just the Lebanese government.”

In just three days, she said, 20 Ethiopian domestic workers were abandoned by their sponsors and left outside the embassy. A video she posted showed women with as little as a backpack or a purse, lined up along the walls of the embassy – some sitting on the floor.

Bangladeshi and Syrian sanitation workers remove garbage from a street in Beirut, Lebanon. PHOTO: AP

The pandemic delivered just the latest blow to a Lebanese economy, already devastated by a financial crisis brought on by decades of corruption and mismanagement. In recent weeks, the Lebanese pound, pegged to the dollar for more than two decades, has lost 60 per cent of its value against the dollar and prices of basic goods soared. Unemployment has risen to 35 per cent and an estimated 45 per cent of the country’s population is now below the poverty line.

In this crisis, migrant workers are among the most vulnerable.

Among them are 180,000 domestic workers, most of them women and many from Ethiopia and the Philippines. Thousands live illegally, after escaping their employers to whom they were tied under an ill-reputed sponsorship system, known in Arabic as kafala, which dates back to the 1960s.

Many are trapped, unable to go home, because they cannot afford the exorbitant costs of repatriation flights or because global air travel is severely restricted. Their plight is similar to that of migrant workers in other countries, including foreign labourers in oil-rich Gulf Arab states who now find themselves jobless, as COVID-19 stalks their labour camps.

In the Lebanese capital of Beirut, the financial chaos has added to their despair.

On Saturday, a Filipina domestic worker took her own life a day after arriving at a shelter run by the Philippines Embassy for workers waiting to return home after losing their jobs. In a statement on Monday, the embassy said she died after jumping from a room she was sharing with two others.

Both the Philippines Embassy and Lebanese authorities said they were investigating the death.