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The Trials of Lebanese Migrant Workers

Updated: Aug 27


Photo by The Arab Weekly


In the wake of a pernicious blast that wreaked havoc and devastation across Lebanon, several international organizations have cautiously stepped in to curb the now-exacerbated health, economic and political trials of the anguished nation.

As dozens of Beirut’s hospitals were deemed “non-functionable” following the explosion, a lack of medical resources left not only the wounded with scant options, but also those suffering amidst an unrelenting pandemic alongside other health struggles, like cancer, with nowhere to turn to. Peter Noun, the head of St. George's pediatric hematology and oncology department in Beirut, Lebanon, said in an interview, "It's hard to know that we have a deadly but treatable disease, and we cannot do anything for these kids because everything is destroyed.”


An additional, equally pressing issue is that of food supply. Given the single port that stored the majority of the country’s wheat supplies and also sourced 85% of imported food was the very epicenter of the explosion, there is a glaring concern surrounding the country’s food supply chains. The devastation of the port compounded with Lebanon’s already-dire economic standing leaves unemployment numbers soaring, and inflation incredibly high. The Lebanese pound, Lebanon’s local currency, has depreciated by 80%, forcing grocery stores to raise food prices even two or three times in a given day, merely to stay afloat. While several countries have pledged a collective $300 million to help rebuild Lebanon’s capital, and the U.N.’s World Food Program requested an additional $250 million in aid for the upcoming six months, political corruption has been illuminated as a paramount dilemma in ensuring that the aid is effective in reaching those in need, and Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet's resignation is likely to trigger only more political instability and economic disarray for the foreseeable future.


Amidst these trying times in Lebanon, which are deeply influenced by a pervasive pandemic, economic turmoil, political unrest, and a devastating explosion that has greatly exacerbated each of the country’s already-pressing plights, it is important as ever to think of the marginalized communities who, as with any crisis, are disproportionately affected.

Lebanon is home to an estimated 250,000 migrant workers, mainly women, who hail from Africa and Southeast Asia. These domestic workers are beholden to the kafala system, an innately abusive and inhumane migration sponsorship system, which leaves these workers vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking, amongst other forms of human rights violations. Amnesty International has documented a myriad of consistent patterns of abuse, including excessively long work hours, the denial of rest days, the withholding of pay or unsubstantiated deductions to it, the confiscation of passports, the restriction of their movement and communication, the deprivation of food and other basic amenities, the denial of basic healthcare, alongside physical and verbal abuse. These horrific and inhumane instances of injustice are maintained by the sheer fact that foreign workers are excluded from Lebanon’s labor laws, and must obtain permission from their employers to change jobs or leave the country. Those who leave without such permissions lose their legal residency and face imminent risks of fines, imprisonments, and deportations.


This sheer power imbalance has fostered a paradigm of rife gender-based violence throughout migrant workers’ communities.

These already-pervasive inequities and human rights violations compounded with the aforementioned health, economic and political crises, has left these domestic workers more vulnerable than ever before. During this ongoing pandemic, lockdown measures have contributed to a steep influx in domestic violence. The economic crisis has left many employers unable to pay their workers, contributing to underpaid or unpaid work, and in some instances, abrupt termination without payout or benefits. These abuses leave such workers trapped in poverty, destitute, and unable to return to their homelands. With the level of political unrest ongoing throughout the country, migrant workers remain entangled in an impasse, unable to work legally in Lebanon, and without funds to return to their homelands. Human Rights Watch reports indicate that migrant workers are dying at incredibly high rates, with suicide and attempted escape as leading causes, followed by health conditions attributed to lack of proper care. As many of these workers have been stranded, sleeping outside of their respective embassies, without belongings, money, or a way to return to their homeland, suicide has been increasingly on the rise, with local media reports indicating that since March, at least seven domestic migrant workers have taken their own lives.


In every tragedy, it is important to identify the communities most deeply affected and least likely to have the resources necessary to prevail. Migrant workers in Lebanon have suffered the country’s turmoil unlike many others, facing unparalleled obstacles. As Aya Majzoub, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Lebanon acclaimed, “Lebanon’s restrictive and exploitative kafala system traps tens of thousands of migrant domestic workers in potentially harmful situations by tying their legal status to their employer, enabling highly abusive conditions amounting at worst to modern-day slavery. A revised contract that recognizes and protects workers’ internationally guaranteed rights would be a positive first step to ending the kafala system and protecting migrant domestic workers.” As the Labor Ministry in Lebanon currently drafts its own contract to safeguard the rights of these domestic workers, per international human rights laws, such contracts must ensure that domestic and migrant workers enjoy equal rights alike other workers under Lebanese law.


Support:


While the Lebanese government remains in a caretaker position until a new cabinet is formed, we can join campaigners alongside other organizations, such as the International Labour Organization, in encouraging the dismantling of the kafala system.

Equal labor laws and the dismantling of the kafala system are an essential start, but we must also fight to ensure that Lebanon is held accountable to these standards. Monitoring and reporting are pivotal mechanisms in the human rights realm, as they aim to hold member states accountable to international treaties. Two Committees of which Lebanon is a signatory include Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The current kafala system alongside other forms of discrimination throughout Lebanon’s labor system are in clear violation of this convention and therefore require our immediate attention.

The vast majority of Lebanon’s migrant workers hail from Africa or Southeast Asia. Given our organization focuses on empowering the women throughout Southeast Asia, we believe that as migrant workers return to their homelands, support and empowerment will be more important than ever before.

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