Abandoned by employers, Ethiopian domestic workers are dumped on Lebanon’s streets
The economic crisis in Lebanon, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has sparked a distressing phenomenon of predominantly Ethiopian migrant domestic workers being fired and dumped outside their country's consulate in Beirut. Ethiopian authorities haven’t been much help, leaving NGOs to provide as best they can.
Over the past few weeks, cars have been stopping in front of the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut and domestic workers have been offloaded on the sidewalk, abandoned by Lebanese families getting rid of their maids and nannies, thus becoming casualties of the country’s economic crisis, which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
"The scene is happening every day," said Diala Haidar, Amnesty International's campaign officer in Lebanon, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Beirut. The hapless foreign workers, with suitcases and sometimes mattresses in tow, have crammed the sidewalk outside the consulate since they can’t afford local rents. Going back home is also very difficult. "The return ticket to Ethiopia is too expensive," explained Haidar.
The homeless migrant workers are told their consulate will help them, but that’s not the case. "Some of the women I spoke to weren't even received by the consular staff, who refuse to let them in," said Haidar.
‘Kafala’ turns homes into prisons
In early June, around 30 abandoned foreign workers were temporarily accommodated by Lebanese authorities in a hotel. "To my knowledge, no other operation has been carried out since then," said Haidar. "The only people helping these women are NGOs, the Ethiopian community in Beirut who bring them food, and a few Lebanese people, moved by their plight, who pay for nights in a hotel."
Amnesty International has called on Lebanese authorities to protect migrant domestic workers. “The Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Interior must work together to promptly investigate, and to avoid this unfolding crisis developing further. They must immediately provide accommodation, food, healthcare and other support to the migrant domestic workers who have lost their jobs,” said the London-based group in a statement.
Lebanon is frequently accused of laxity in dealing with the exploitation of foreign domestic workers, which has long been denounced by human rights groups.
Under the kafala, or sponsorship, system, which ties the legal residency of the worker to a contractual relationship with the employer, an employee cannot resign without the employer’s permission.
In a 2019 report, “Their Home Is My Prison,” Amnesty noted that, “If this employment relationship ends, even in cases of abuse, the worker loses regular migration status.” The contractual relationship, the report noted, “allows the employer to coerce the worker to accept exploitative working conditions. If a migrant domestic worker refuses such conditions and decides to leave the home of the employer without the latter’s consent, the worker risks losing their residency status and consequently detention and deportation.”
There are currently around 250,000 migrant workers – mostly Ethiopian, Philippine and Sri Lankan women, but also Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian women – employed under the kafala system. Some are paid as little as $150 per month.
Lebanon is facing a severe economic crisis in the thick of a global pandemic and an anti-government protest movement that has seen demonstrators take to the streets in several cities demanding an overhaul of the country’s political system.
Hit by a currency devaluation, inflation and high unemployment, Lebanon’s middle class is rapidly falling into poverty and domestic workers are no longer affordable in many households.
The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the physical and mental health crisis among this particularly vulnerable, marginalised section of society, according to aid organisations. In April, the French NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) set up a helpline for migrant domestic workers and were inundated with calls for help. According to MSF, six of the Ethiopian female workers outside the consulate in recent weeks had to be hospitalised for psychiatric problems, some of them having been physically or sexually abused.
Black Lives Matter, Lebanese style
The Lebanese authorities have promised to tighten oversight, threatening to punish employers who do not respect the contracts signed with their foreign employees.
But Haidar warns that "it’s not enough if there are no inspection mechanisms”. The solution, she notes, is to “abolish kafala and integrate immigrant workers into the labour market".
With the spread of Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the world following the killing of George Floyd in the US, Lebanon has witnessed a growing call for an end to kafala. An online petition calling for the abolition of the system described as “neo-slavery, inhuman and racist”, garnered more than 31,000 signatures in three weeks.
Prompted by the mobilisation, the Lebanese Labour Ministry was forced to react by organising a meeting on June 19 with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and NGOs including Amnesty International.
"The minister expressed her intention to present a draft amendment to the labour law to include foreign domestic workers," said Haidar. If successful, the bill would guarantee foreign domestic workers the right to leave, a minimum wage and freedom of movement.
The cost of going home
For those camped in front of their consulates and embassies, the Lebanese authorities announced that repatriations would take place, without providing specific dates or figures.
Last week, a group of Ghanaian workers were finally able to leave Lebanon for home. Video clips showed delighted passengers singing and dancing with joy on the plane before takeoff.
Ethiopia so far has repatriated around 650 women, who arrived in the capital, Addis Ababa, to much fanfare.
But there are many more to go and for those not fortunate enough to get on the first evacuation flight, it has been getting more difficult by the day.
While the onus of labour protection measures lies with Lebanese authorities, Ethiopia, a fast-developing country and home to the African Union headquarters, has also come under criticism for abandoning its citizens trapped overseas. Flight tickets from Beirut to Addis Ababa recently jumped to $1,450 on state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, a prohibitive amount for abandoned domestic workers.
Ethiopian Airlines explained in a June 3 post on its Facebook page that the price includes the cost of the flight and of quarantine, which Middle East Matters reported the airline said would take place in one of 23 hotels designated by the Ethiopian government to hold returnees.
But Ethiopian women repatriated from Lebanon in May told Middle East Eye that the government had quarantined them at a university campus free of charge.
Hanna, one of those repatriated, said she couldn’t understand why the university could not be used to quarantine newer arrivals. "It's madness to expect people in Lebanon to afford the quarantine hotels. They brought us here, why can't they bring the others here after us? They are suffering terribly," she told Middle East Eye.
The anguish of the migrant workers in Lebanon is unquestionable and only getting worse. In 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that, on average, more than one domestic worker died each week in Lebanon, either by suicide or by "falling off a building, often trying to escape". Since then, the number has reportedly doubled, according to human rights activists.
As recently as June 18, an Ethiopian domestic worker was found hanged at her employer's home in Temnine el-Tahta, according to the Lebanese French-language daily, L'Orient Le Jour. The report did not reveal if any charges were filed in the case.
This article has been translated and updated from the original in French.
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