Crisis weighs heavy on Lebanese, but even heavier on foreign workers

Some employers, many of whom are victims of the economic crisis, are simply abandoning their foreign employees

In this Saturday, May 23, 2020 photo, an Ethiopian domestic worker cleans her employer's balcony, in Beirut, Lebanon. Some 250,000 registered migrant laborers in Lebanon — maids, garbage collectors, farm hands and construction workers — are growing more desperate as a crippling economic and financial crisis sets in, coupled with coronavirus restrictions. With no functioning airports and exorbitant costs of repatriation flights, many are trapped, unable to go home. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
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Last weekend, Beirut held its first mass protests since coronavirus-related restrictions were eased. Hundreds of people took to the streets to demand the end of a corrupt sectarian system, better living conditions and to denounce Hezbollah’s grip on the country. Sectarian political parties have attempted to undermine the protest movement, whether through intimidation, force or by attempting to hijack it, thus far to no avail. Renewed demonstrations have come at a time of high tensions.

Since October 2019, Lebanon has been in crisis. A mass protest movement against the ruling elite has taken the nation by storm, forcing then prime minister Saad Hariri to step down that same month. In November, a financial crisis hit and now the Lebanese pound has lost more than half of its value on the black market due to a shortage in American dollars, to which the pound is pegged.

These developments have led to a sharp rise in destitution and joblessness, with nearly half of all Lebanese now believed to be living in poverty. According to the World Bank, that number could increase to 60 per cent by the end of the year. Coronavirus restrictions put in place in March further compounded an already-dire economic situation. Talks with the International Monetary Fund for a potential bailout are underway, but with the continued dysfunction in Lebanon, there is little hope that much will change.

This combination of hardships has revealed deep cracks within the system, and the situation has weighed heavily on Lebanese citizens and foreign residents alike. For the past several days, a curious phenomenon has emerged at the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut. Some Lebanese employers have reportedly left their Ethiopian domestic workers – many of whom rely on their employers for food and shelter – at the doors of the consulate.

These vulnerable women have been forsaken with unpaid wages and sometimes no documentation, as employers often seize their passports. Lebanon’s currency crisis has restricted access to American dollars, in which foreign labourers are paid. This has led unscrupulous employers, many of whom are victims of the crisis themselves, to simply abandon foreign employees, offering them no means of returning home. Repatriation flights, which employers are supposed to provide, have become expensive because of travel restrictions.

This combination of hardships has revealed deep cracks within the system, and the situation has weighed heavily on Lebanese citizens and foreign residents

Local NGOs are providing support for the Ethiopian women, but more workers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere are bound to face similar hardships. Syrians in particular are among Lebanon’s most vulnerable communities in the face of poverty and disease. According to a survey by Plan International, more than 40 per cent of Lebanon’s Syrian respondents do not have enough food for the next two weeks, and 65 per cent do not have access to hygiene and disinfectant supplies – nearly double the percentages of their Lebanese counterparts.

As the situation gets increasingly difficult for all segments of society, it is important to remember that the protest movement, at its core, is a cry for help against social injustice, corruption and a lack of fair treatment. Now more than ever, politicians would do well to heed its demands for justice and equal opportunity, no matter one’s sect, religion or colour.