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Lebanese economic crisis imperils migrant domestic workers

As Lebanon struggles with its worst economic crisis in decades, the fate of thousands of migrant domestic workers in the country hangs in balance.
Photo by Elsie Haddad/Getty Images

The future of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is in jeopardy as the economic crisis worsens and the Lebanese pound continues its record depreciation, making it difficult for employers to pay their staff.

Lebanon was host to an estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers prior to the economic crisis that started to shape in October 2019, most of whom are women from African and southeast Asian countries. Many of them have flown back home over the past year, but others have struggled to leave the country. Some have been left at their embassies’ doors by their employers.

Ali al-Amin, who heads a syndicate of these staffing agencies, told Al-Markazia March 2 that the entry of new migrant workers has dropped by 90% in the last year due to the economic collapse.

As the crisis deepens, many employers can no longer pay their foreign domestic workers, whose salaries are paid in dollars at an average of $300 per month. The minimum wage in Lebanon is now worth about $45, as its value drops significantly on a weekly basis with the Lebanese pound.

According to the International Labor Organization, 90% of the migrant domestic workers employed in Lebanon are employed through an agency. While the future of the staffing agencies looks uncertain, “there will always be dollars [remittances] coming from Lebanese expats,” Amin told Al-Monitor. 

“However, as the crisis worsens, the number of agencies will become very limited, no doubt about that,” Amin added.

Lebanon is one of the largest remittance-receiving countries in the world, exceeding one fifth of its nominal GDP and surpassing financial inflows from both exports of goods and foreign direct investments over the past decade.

Domestic services in Lebanon are almost completely reliant on migrant workers, but the hard conditions could change the equation. Amin, however, does not foresee Lebanese workers replacing migrants, who work long hours performing several duties and in almost all cases live with their employers. “We might see employers hiring a Lebanese worker to clean up for an hour or two as the crisis continues and pay them in Lebanese [pounds], but even that is difficult now due to the coronavirus,” Amin continued.

Lebanon's relationship with migrant workers goes back a long time. Mistreatment and abuse have been widely covered by Lebanese activists and reporters, but some of them have become an intrinsic part of Lebanese society and the households for whom they work. Such workers are treated with respect and dignity and considered part of the family.

“Our domestic worker was really kind and honest and my husband and kids loved her and considered her family. But unfortunately she had to go back to Ethiopia as we couldn’t pay her anymore because of the crisis,” employer Hanane Yassine told Al-Monitor.

Saying her former employee left one week before the Aug. 4 port explosion, Yassine commented, “I am glad she got to leave in time because my kitchen was fully destroyed by the blast and there is a good chance she would have been there.”

Asked what will happen to the migrant workers in Lebanon, some of whom are living on the street near their embassies, Amin said that contracts with staffing agencies include a ticket back home. If a domestic worker decides to stop working or their employers can’t pay, “she can always get back home,” he said.

Amin also claimed, “The workers we see by embassy doors are mostly freelance domestic workers, so their ticket is not paid for by agencies and that is why they are struggling to fly home.”

Bayosh, 22, came to Lebanon from Ethiopia when she was 18 and has worked for the same employer since then. Like many other migrant workers, Bayosh came to Lebanon to save some money, as the dollars they are paid are worth a lot in her own country. “I have been treated well here and I have many plans for what to do with my money when I go back in August, including building my own house,” Bayosh told Al-Monitor.

But not all migrant domestic workers’ experiences have been as pleasant as Bayosh's. They are often subjected to racism, physical and sexual assault and nonpayment of wages. They have no legal recourse in the unjust kafala or sponsorship system, which leaves them dependent on their employers and vulnerable. According to Lebanon's own intelligence agency [2017] two migrant workers die in Lebanon every week. Suicide is common in situations of abuse and exploitation.

A number of nongovernment organizations like the Migrant Community Center, Caritas and KAFA have worked hard over the years for migrant domestic workers' rights, create programs to assist them and pressure the Lebanese authorities to abolish the kafala system.

Now as Lebanon faces its worst economic crisis yet, it is also shouldering the burden of helping workers get back to their countries. Not all migrant workers have left or are even trying to leave the country, said Farah Baba of a nongovernmental group called the Antiracism Movement Organization.

Baba told Al-Monitor that although a number of migrant domestic workers have left, one of the factors that can prevent migrant workers from going back home is having had children in Lebanon and needing the father’s permission to take them. This is often impossible to do because many of these workers became pregnant as result of sexual assault, while others were left by their husband and they have no way to contact the father, according to Baba. In addition, many of the countries that workers come from are struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, so in many cases they prefer to remain in Lebanon and find a freelance job, Baba explained.

“Even if hypothetically they all decide to leave, aid organizations do not have enough funding to buy them all tickets, which most need since contracts with agencies only cover a ticket back in specific cases,” Baba added.

Under these circumstances, with a large number of migrant workers clearly staying in Lebanon either by choice or by force, the kafala system remains a major problem. But with all what is going on in Lebanon, a large number of the Lebanese activists doing this work are busy with their own issues.

It is hard to imagine the current political class — which is barely functioning and has failed to form a government since August 2020 — prioritizing migrant domestic workers’ rights and ending the kafala system.

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