Lebanese migrant workers celebrate despite turmoil

A celebration of solidarity and resilience held for migrant workers in Beirut, amid economic crisis and political turmoil.

al-monitor A migrant worker reads a story at an event organized by the Migrant Community Center, Beirut, Lebanon, Dec. 15, 2019.  Photo by MCC/ Al-Monitor.

Dec 18, 2019

BEIRUT — The Migrant Community Center (MCC), a project of the Anti-Racism Movement, which runs a series of safe spaces around Lebanon tailored to migrant workers, held a day of festivities in Beirut this week, amid a worsening economic crisis and months of protests.

Art, traditional dances, scathing satirical skits and events for kids were held for Lebanon’s foreign workers on Dec. 15, only a few days before International Migrants Day.

The event was attended by scores of migrant workers, their diversity shown in the dozens of flags from Cameroon to the Philippines hung around the KED event space in Beirut.

During the event migrant workers were able to connect with each other and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Sri Lankan Women’s Activity ProjectMesewat, a nongovernmental organization providing legal aid, shelter and assistance to migrant workers; and many more groups.

However, the bulk of the day centered on a talent show by migrant workers, some performed folk dances, such as a Cameroonian who started alone on stage and throughout the performance was joined by a dozen of her countrypeople, while others told stories of how they arrived in Lebanon.

There were also poetry recitations with uplifting themes of perseverance followed by demands for respect, with one poet saying, “We have not come here to learn about civilization like wild animals.”

Local goods and food were sold at a market, with artworks displayed on the walls. Walter, a Nigerian who declined to give his last name, was proudly showcasing a series of oil on canvas paintings.

“I started when I was little — around eight,” he told Al-Monitor. Pointing to small work, with deep prime colors in one corner leading into a white beam connecting to an image of Earth, Walter said, “This is called 'Energy Flow.' At first when I started I didn’t know what to make but the story was just coming into my mind.”

He added, “I love it, it is like my life. I am art. … In Lebanon it is not easy, I cannot find people who will pay me. I am not getting paid. I am getting out.”

Walter's situation is representative of the positions many foreign workers find themselves in. Tumari, a Sri Lankan woman who has been working in Lebanon for 23 years as a home care provider, told Al-Monitor, “Before there was money but now there is none. … Now I don’t want to stay.”

The economic crisis declared in September has gotten dramatically worse, with 10% of businesses in the country closing and a third reducing their employees’ salaries to nearly half.

A spokeswoman for This Is Lebanon (TIL), a project of Domestic Workers Unite formed by activists and former domestic workers aimed at ending labor abuses, told Al-Monitor, “A lot of [migrant workers] work in the food and cleaning industry and they are the first ones to be affected.”

Declining to give her name in line with the organization's rules, she said, “They are caught in a bind because they are not being paid, but they can’t leave because many have to pay a fine — as they lack proper documentation — and it takes two or three months to process. Not only are they unemployed but they can’t leave — they are stuck.”

This grim situation was in part a reason to hold the event, said Rahaf Dandash, coordinator at the MCC. She told Al-Monitor, “The aim of the event is to come together away from the stress, and a way to remember what the kafala system stands for.”

Kafala refers to a specific and prominent form of migrant work, a sponsorship system in which migrant workers obtain legal residency in Lebanon through their employers, excluding the workers from the protections under the labor law. An estimated quarter of a million mostly women from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal and elsewhere currently work in Lebanon under this system, despite the former two countries prohibiting their workers to work in places where there are no sufficient safeguards to prevent abuse.

This system has allowed for countless abuses, with approximately 94% of employers taking their workers passports, multiple cases of abuse as well as an average of two deaths a week.

Previous Lebanese labor ministers have tried to reform the kafala system, the most recent minister, Camille Abousleiman, even said that “it is a form of modern slavery in its extreme,” but these efforts have come to naught.

This issue has only worsened during the economic crisis. Dandash said, “The same violations that were happening before [are still occurring], but have become a lot more intensified.”

This has included a reduction in pay, which was already an average of $180 a month or simply not being paid at all. 

To make matters worse, the lack of US dollars in the economy has meant many are seeing a relative reduction in pay by receiving Lebanese lira — officially pegged at 1,507.50 liras to the dollar but currently traded at 2,000 liras — losing a third of their salaries.

The TIL spokeswoman explained, “They came [to Lebanon] for an agreed US dollar salary. They didn’t know about liras when they came. All of their money is sent home. That’s why they came, to support their families.”

However, it is not only economic issues, as the protests that started Oct. 17 have brought the government to a halt. “Accountability and legal action has become a lot harder,” Dandash noted.

This is not to say the situation of migrants was easy before. The TIL spokeswoman referred to Halima Ubpah who was “a slave for 10 years, and her case has been grinding through the system for two years with no light at the end of the tunnel.”

But some positive developments are taking place, such as a radical move by the Philippine government, offering free repatriation for its citizens in Lebanon.

Philippine Ambassador Bernardita L. Catalla told Al-Monitor, “[People] are flocking to us. … Filipinos come here to work, to earn money for their families back home. Of course if they work with no pay, that’s a big problem.”

This voluntary scheme lasted from Dec. 4 to Dec. 15 and saw over 1,000 people take up the offer.

Catalla added, “For those who are undocumented we are willing to pay the penalties, and we will hopefully [compensate up to a certain amount]."

This response is in stark contrast with for instance the Ethiopian Embassy that “[has a] strict new policy of nonengagement with regard to endangered domestic workers.”

“If Lebanon provided amnesty so domestic workers could leave without paying the fine, just the plane ticket, you would see thousands and thousands of women at the airport," the TIL spokeswoman added.

However, this would mean Lebanon would lose a deep cultural richness and community, as shown at the MCC event, due to the poor treatment of migrant workers in the country and an economic situation that is hitting them hard.

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