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The Lira’s Collapse and Employers’ Greed: A Painful Slap to Foreign Workers in Lebanon

Myriam Sweidan
Lebanese Journalist
May 13, 2020
The economic crisis that the country is suffering through has weighed heavily on migrant workers; because of the lack of dollars, they are unable to send money back to their countries, because converting the Lebanese currency to the dollar at currency exchange offices means losing a large portion of its value.

“They tell me there are no dollars at the bank, and that I will get my money soon, but I haven’t been paid my salary in 5 months,” said Pronto, 34, an Ethiopian worker who came to Lebanon 7 years ago to work in domestic services, in order to pay for her children’s tuition.

“I haven’t sent my children any money for a while,” she added, “Easter passed without any new clothes, nor even a present. I feel like I haven’t done my duty towards them, and this is killing me.”

Pronto explains that she tried at the beginning of the crisis to work for a few hours outside the house of her employer, for a certain wage, but this option was no longer available since the spread of the Coronavirus, which inhibited her movement between houses or offices, and now she’s staying home due to quarantine.

Pronto’s story is one of many stories of foreign workers in Lebanon who have been suffering for months. The economic crisis that the country is facing has weighed heavily on the workers, because of the lack of dollars, they are unable to send money to their countries, because converting the Lebanese currency to the dollar at currency exchange offices means losing a large portion of its value, in addition to the high costs of transferring money abroad, which amounts to up to 30%, thanks again to the lack of USD in the Lebanese market.

Amid these circumstances, many of the foreign workers, who haven’t been getting paid their salaries for long periods, are thinking of leaving and never returning.

In this context, Ali Shaban, director of the Sadat Travel Agency, told Daraj that the demand for one-way airline tickets has increased since the beginning of the collapse of the lira in Lebanon, but after the spread of the Coronavirus, the desire of foreign workers to depart has multiplied.

“Most of them want to leave,” he added, “We’ve booked seats for a large number of them in June, when it is expected that airports will reopen”.

Ramco: A Humanitarian Scandal

A large part of the foreign labor in Lebanon works in the cleaning or sanitation sectors. Videos of the security forces assaulting more than 150 foreign workers from the Ramco company recently went viral on social media. This was following a sit-in the sanitation workers had organized to demand the disbursement of their salaries according to the rise of the USD against the Lebanese lira.

At first glance, the sit-in appeared as a protest movement because their salaries were delayed, but later it became clear, according to their statement, that the labor strike was due also to the company’s repeated transgressions, including the attempt to kill one of the workers at the hands of the security guards.

Some of the workers confirmed that one of their colleagues was diagnosed with a mental instability on April 8th, which later took an unfortunate turn in which he’d attempted suicide due to the mismanagement, lack of attention, and the pressures that had been exerted on him.

Part of the statement issued by “Ramco” workers

Instead of providing the employee with the necessary medical and psychological help, he was kept in a dark underground room for three days, subjected to psychological and physical violence, until he completely lost his mind, after which the security officials tried to kill him; “They grabbed him by the chest and tried to strangle him with their hands,” until his friends intervened and saved him, according to the statement.

In that context, Diala Haidar, the campaign manager at Amnesty International Lebanon, said that the organization is following this issue closely and contacting the concerned authorities. She confirmed that the “workers’ right to protest is warranted in all the international conventions approved by Lebanon”.

Quarantine Adds Fuel to the Fire

In addition to the physical injustices, many workers are subjected to verbal and physical violence, which can sometimes lead to murder. The murder case of Ghanaian worker Faustina Tai, for example, attracted international attention after her body was found in a parking lot under her employer’s home in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

It is worth noting that Tai had previously sought help through social media, and in desperate voice messages to human rights groups, declaring that she feared for her life and warning about the physical abuse she was being subjected to.

Many stories similar to the story of Tai have been exposed recently in Lebanon, after international reports condemned the abuse and violence suffered by domestic workers, especially during the period of home quarantine. Among these stories was the story of D. D., who was found hanged by a piece of cloth from a tree in an olive field in Ghassaneya, in addition to a recent incident in which a Lebanese man offered a migrant domestic worker for sale on Facebook! He wrote: “African Domestic worker form Nigeria, for sale, with a new residence permit and complete legal papers. 30 years, very clean and active”.

There are about 250 thousand domestic workers in Lebanon, two of whom die every week, as a result of falling from high buildings, considered either “suicide” attempts, or rather, failed attempts to escape, according to the security forces data. Most cases are closed without charging anyone with the responsibility of these accidents, and in some cases of violence, the worker is deported to her homeland as if nothing happened, without even conducting an investigation in the case.

An Inappropriate Environment for Foreign Workers

The Lebanese Ministry of Labor renewed 182749 existing work permits according to the official statistics for the year 2018. The Ethiopian nationality came first with 91,1551 licenses, then Egyptian 18012, and Filipino 17156, while Sri Lankan reached 6031, Indian 6052, and Bangladeshi were 5130 work permits.

The number of licenses granted to new workers coming to Lebanon reached 86,894 foreign workers, bringing the total legal foreign workforce to 270,000. These numbers confirm the large percentage of foreign workers in Lebanon, who are working under unjust circumstances, and an environment that is no longer suitable for them, especially under the kafala (sponsorship) system.

There are about 250 thousand domestic workers in Lebanon, two of whom die every week

In this context, “Amnesty International” called on the Lebanese authorities to abolish the sponsorship system in the country, and said that “workers, particularly migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, are stuck in a cobweb woven by the sponsorship system, which is a custodianship system that involves abuse by default, and increases the risk of their being exposed to exploitation, forced labor and human trafficking, and gives them no chance of obtaining justice”.

Haidar says that the organization documented many violations against workers during the crisis of the Corona epidemic, such as abuse, lack of commitment to working hours, and obstructing their communication with the outside world, among other things. Added to that is the suffering of those workers detained by security forces because they have no residence permits.

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