SEATTLE, Washington — Days after the Beirut explosion, protests began outside the city’s Kenyan consulate. Many of the protesters were Kenyan women migrant domestic workers stranded in Lebanon. In the past year, Lebanon’s economic crisis has intensified. COVID-19 and the massive explosion in Beirut further exacerbated the poor economic conditions. The rate of inflation has accelerated with the Lebanese pound losing 80% of its value since October. Prices of goods have skyrocketed. There have been electricity, food and medicine shortages. The kafala system, Lebanon’s system for migrant laborers, leaves migrant workers one of the more vulnerable groups in the country, without minimal legal protections.
The kafala system
Lebanon’s kafala system allows migrant worker employers to control their migration status. They can cancel the worker’s visa, restrict them from leaving the country and determine whether or not they can change employers or jobs. It is a common practice for employers to confiscate workers’ passports due to little government regulation of employers’ powers. Human rights agencies argue that the kafala system can result in abusive relationships between employer and employee.
The experience of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon
Amnesty International counts over 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Most are women from African and Asian countries, seeking work abroad. Recruiters in these countries have been accused of making false claims about job opportunities in Lebanon. One Ethiopian migrant worker described arriving in Lebanon with a group of women only to be brought to a house and told she would serve as their maid. She said she was unable to request a new job and, for two years, worked with minimal pay and no days off.
Once finding employment, migrant domestic workers in Lebanon often face abusive labor practices. A report on 32 female domestic workers found a pattern of maltreatment by employers. The women described being forced to work more than 10 hours a day, being refused pay and basic necessities and being physically or verbally assaulted by their employer. None of these incidents were reported to the authorities.
As the economic crisis has worsened, the government has largely ignored issues migrant workers face. Human Rights Watch documents a number of domestic workers who saw severe salary cuts as the value of the Lebanese pound plummeted. Both the kafala system and the growing unemployment rate have made it difficult for them to find new jobs.
How COVID-19 and the Beirut Explosion have Impacted Migrant Workers
An estimated 25,000 of the 300,000 people displaced by the Beirut explosion on August 4 were migrant workers. Days after the explosion, protests began outside the Kenyan consulate. Migrant workers wanted to be repatriated for free given how many have lost their jobs in the midst of Lebanon’s economic crisis. An increasing number of migrant workers have been left on the steps on their consulates by employers who can no longer pay them. Tsigereda Birhanu, an activist for migrant workers in Lebanon, describes seeing domestic workers homeless, without jobs or money, unable to get medical care or essential medications, and unable to afford a flight home. She explains how migrant workers are a widely marginalized population and how COVID-19 and the Beirut explosion have made them even more of a vulnerable group.
The International Labor Organization in Lebanon
The International Labor Organization is an agency of the UN that aims to promote human rights in labor practices through international policies and standards. They have previously advocated for the abolishment of the kafala system, a system they say promotes unfair and abusive labor practices. The ILO has pushed the government to replace employer-regulated work contracts with a government agency dedicated to managing migrant workers.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the ILO has expressed concern for the economic, health and social impacts of COVID-19 on migrant workers. To relieve these burdens on migrant workers, the ILO recommends that employers provide workers with information on the prevention of COVID-19, pay them their regular salaries and abstain from abusive labor practices.
Migrant workers in Lebanon, especially now, are facing great risks of poverty, homelessness, unemployment and abuse. It is important that there be increased awareness for their plight as the crisis in Lebanon will leave many marginalized groups excluded from the public dialogue. The ILO continues to work with employers, the government and workers to improve migrant workers’ rights and aid those stuck in Lebanon.
– Ann Marie Vanderveen