In Lebanon, Migrant Workers Are Facing More Abuse Than Ever

In Lebanon, the pandemic struck at a time of social change and economic crisis, whereby the culture shifted towards overthrowing corrupt political leaders but forgot to take into account migrant workers—victims of several human rights violations.

In Lebanon,  Migrant Workers Are Facing More Abuse Than Ever In The Pandemic
Lebanon women forming a line between riot police and other protesters in Riad el Solh, Beirut, during the 2019 Revolution. (Wikimedia Commons)

“The agency told me that they would provide me a job with good conditions,” she said.

This is what Rani, a domestic worker, said when she left her home country, Sri Lanka, over 20 years ago, in hopes of finding a better life in Lebanon with the support of her employers. She had no idea that she would walk into a nightmare.

In Lebanon, the pandemic struck at a time of social change and economic crisis, whereby the culture shifted towards overthrowing corrupt political leaders and did not pay attention to how their political protests forgot to take into account migrant workers, who are victims of several human rights violations. Rani would become one of many women of color to suffer countless forms of abuse. This is how it all came to light.

On October 17, 2019, al thawra (the revolution) brought the citizens of Lebanon—despite their religious differences—together against the common cause of ending the unacceptable financial conditions. In the months leading to the revolution, businesses went bankrupt, unemployment increased, and with an inflation of about 40 percent a year, the currency devalued compared to the U.S. dollar.

Ultimately, the pandemic’s arrival in February of 2020 derailed the social movement’s progress, with already 50 percent of the population living in poverty when a “whole government response” was initiated. This response meant that early aggressive containment measures disproportionately affected Lebanon’s most vulnerable populations by mandating stay-at-home orders, closed borders, and lockdowns of nonessential services.

The Lebanese government’s response didn’t consider the population’s stigma towards migrant workers under the kafala (sponsorship) system and the 1.5 million refugees, who aren’t granted health care and suffer from under-resourced living conditions.

In Lebanon, Migrant Workers Are Facing More Abuse Than Ever
Syrian refugees line up during a class break while at school in Zouq Bhanin Village, Lebanon on March 22, 2016. (Dominic Chavez / World Bank)

Due to lockdown measures, the kafala system forces all the participating employees to live with their employers, which drastically increases their exploitation and abuse. Even in a time like the pandemic, kafala protects abusive employers exercising control over workers’ lives, who may choose to not pay wages or offer vacations, and above all, to refuse paying for their treatment if they contract the virus. The employees who left their employers without their permission risked losing their legal residency in the country and faced detention and deportation.

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Safety precautions like social distancing were ignored in detention centers, so migrant eviction inadvertently made breeding hotspots for the virus to spread. Even if a worker’s contracts are not terminated, but they want to escape the abusive situations of their employers, they can’t change their address without their employer agreeing. So, this leads to their detention in overcrowded centers, which also spreads COVID-19,  and they eventually get deported. Violating workers’ rights, agencies in Lebanon frequently ask employers to pay the first few months’ salary to them, rather than directly to the worker. This has led to workers facing forced labor and human trafficking by the recruitment agencies.

Covering the cost of COVID-19 treatment for a migrant worker is an expensive and undervalued task, so even if they are freed from their employers, there is no guarantee that they will be able to afford the treatment solely based on their salary or savings. These women arrive in Lebanon to health care that is contractually possible through their employers only, if they decide to grant it to them, because they are not protected by labor laws.

In Lebanon, the already large deficit with private health providers led to an estimate of 5,000 infected patients who can be accommodated for COVID-19 treatment, of which 20 percent would need hospital care . There isn’t capacity to treat citizens first, let alone migrant workers who don’t have equal protection under the law, and with migrant workers’ health care being conditional on whether or not their employers choose to provide it for them, they virtually never receive treatment. Even in urgent cases, Lebanese hospitals won’t admit migrant workers as they aren’t covered by insurance. Yet, these migrant workers risk their lives to make a living in Lebanon due to previously advantageous payments in U.S. dollars for their services.

The kafala system is a modern form of slavery whose true evil surfaced in October 2020, a year after the revolution began, exposing Lebanese perception of migrant workers. Panic and fear of the COVID-19 virus are increasing xenophobia and abuse against these women, including the abrupt termination of their contracts. Several strikes ensued after migrant workers had their contracts abruptly terminated, and at one of the protests, they sang their national anthem at Beirut airport as they waited for their flights.

 Because of the currency crisis and the exchange rates worsening, employers ceased their payments of salaries in dollars, leading to a vast number of foreign labor voicing their concerns about unpaid wages. With restrictions set in place for physical displacement during government-mandated lockdown in the country, measures controlling the working hours of most businesses left migrant workers with no opportunity to transfer their salary abroad to their family, noting that this salary is conditional on the employer’s whims.

Panic, fear and misinformation surrounding the coronavirus increased xenophobia, discrimination and gender-based violence against migrant workers, so they not only experienced financial strain, but they began developing mental health issues from their lack of access to social services and adequate support systems. Women of color are treated with contempt, disdain and cruelty since there are no anti-racist and anti-discrimination laws in place that safeguard their rights. Under kafala, abusive households persist because racism is the real prison that perpetuates migrant workers’ mistreatment.

The pandemic, while it is an unfortunate time for the world, has proven to be the only way to unmask underlying issues in labor systems, and Lebanon’s kafala system is no exception. The Arab League as an entity has not addressed this issue and pre-scheduled meetings were postponed due to the evolving COVID-19 situation, and local protesters have started to give up on what the government can accomplish since the existing political leaders have yet to leave office.

Lebanon’s health care system’s preparedness for infectious diseases is still lagging because when a country cannot care for its most vulnerable people, it cannot survive in the long run. Legal aid access in Lebanon must be adopted so that the present labor standard contract includes migrant workers and protects them from exploitation and unequal treatment in a way that lives up to international standards. It is imperative that the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Health have services that offer aid for migrant workers, particularly a hotline for reporting sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.

More importantly, recruitment agencies ought to be subjected to strict supervision and their shortcomings must be addressed. All in all, the kafala system is the source of migrant workers’ abhorrent living conditions—but it was only until COVID-19 struck that its inhumane structure began unraveling. Improving the working conditions of working women is no small feat, but it is an important step towards equitable and sustainable development everywhere.

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Elianor M.A. is a Lebanese-American journalist, screenwriter, and human rights activist. She is also the author of the book Dealing with Dramedies. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Legal Studies from the University of Rochester.