Confused and sometimes visibly distressed, dozens of Ethiopian women boarded a bus outside a Beirut hotel heading for an NGO-run shelter on Friday.
The 37 women had been sleeping for several days on the street outside their consulate in the Lebanese capital.
In many cases, their employers had dropped them and left them alone despite the building being obviously closed. Unpaid for months, the women carried little or no money. Some did not even have their identification documents or a change of clothes.
“I told my employer that I want to return home, but she said that she had no money to pay me,” said Hayat, 22, as she sat in the bus, waiting to depart. “She told me the embassy would pay for my ticket back to Ethiopia.”
But her employer did not return Hayat’s passport, and the consulate has not communicated with the women, she said. The result was Hayat sleeping on the cold hard pavement for an entire week.
Neither the Ethiopian consul nor his press attaché responded to a request for comment.
There is no immediate solution for these stranded and destitute women, many of whom were employed under the kafala – or sponsorship - system, whereby their visa is tied to their employer.
“This is immoral and illegal,” said Imane Khazaal, head of the Department of Employment in Mount Lebanon at the Labour Ministry, referring to employers who abandoned their maids. “We are in a hole. We don’t know what to do. It’s very difficult for everyone.”
Live-in maids are not protected by Lebanese labour laws. They are under the responsibility of their employers, who are legally obliged to pay for their return ticket.
Hayat and the other 36 women are unlikely to be the first or last victims. Lebanon has been struggling since last summer with its worst-ever economic crisis, a cash crunch, and a rapid devaluation of its local currency.
In these circumstances, paying $680 for their ticket home, in addition to a mandatory two-week quarantine in a hotel – between $560 and $1680 – is near-impossible for employers, said Mrs Khazaal.
To make matters worse, national carrier Ethiopian Airlines only takes payment for flight tickets in dollars, despite the fact that Lebanese banks severely restrict access to the currency since last Autumn and that prices have skyrocketed on the black market, said Zeina Mohanna, programme coordinator for support of migrant workers and counter-trafficking at Amel, a Beirut-based NGO.
“Everything is linked. The Lebanese don’t have access to dollars anymore. And they are losing their jobs,” she said. “The issue is really big, and we know that this is going to reach thousands,” she added.
Amel and other local NGOs are lobbying Ethiopian Airlines to lower their prices to facilitate these women’s return.
There are 182,000 domestic workers in Lebanon registered with local authorities, said Mrs Mohanna, but thousands more are undocumented. Most of them are Ethiopian.
In co-operation with French foundation Mérieux, Amel tested the 37 Ethiopian women for coronavirus as a precautionary measure before they were moved to a shelter run by Caritas, an international Catholic relief confederation. Lebanon’s governmental coronavirus commission covered their one-night stay at Le Charles hotel in Beirut.
The situation of the women varies widely, said Zeina Ammar, advocacy and communications manager at the anti-racism movement, a Lebanese grassroots collective which collaborates with migrant workers.
"Some have contracts that have ended, some have contracts that did not end legally, some don't have contracts at all, so they have been undocumented freelancers for a while," she told The National. "Some reported they had been paid all their wages…Others have unpaid wages ranging from three months to a year," she added. The anti-racism movement registered the case of a woman paid 200,000 Lebanese pounds, or $53 dollars on the black market, instead of her usual salary of 200 dollars.
“This is really the tip of the iceberg,” said Mrs Ammar. “We understand that for some people [the economic crisis] is a legitimate burden but it should not be placed on the worker at all. At the same time, it’s the responsibility of the Lebanese government and of governments of the countries of origin to come together for a solution to help pay for tickets of undocumented workers who wish to be evacuated.”
Mrs Khazaal said that the Labour Ministry would launch an investigation into the matter. But the government cannot afford to pay for accommodation anymore, she said.
“We communicated with the Ethiopian government to facilitate their departure,” she said.
On June 3, the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut published a lengthy Facebook post saying they would not cover return tickets and encouraged its citizens to remain with their employers until the airport reopens at a date that remains unclear.
Ethiopian women started gathering outside their consulate several weeks ago, said human rights NGO Amnesty International in a report on June 3. It called on Lebanon’s Interior Ministry to publicly announce the details of the repatriation process.
On Friday, another 28 Ethiopian women who had been left at their consulate’s doors arrived at Le Charles hotel. Activists and volunteers began raising funds to cover their stay, sometimes paying from their own pocket. “We are looking for a sustainable situation. People are constantly showing up,” said Lebanese volunteer Rhea Lahoud.
NGOs are aware that some of them suffer from severe traumas but have struggled to make contact.
“To tell you frankly, I came yesterday with a colleague. Both of us are professional social workers. We tried to speak with them, to inquire about their challenges, to give them trust…but unfortunately they are not speaking,” said Hessen Sayah, head of the migrants department at Caritas Lebanon.
“Once they are in the shelter, a psychologist will take care of them.”
As she spoke, a visibly upset Ethiopian woman shouted in the background that she did not want to board the bus to the Caritas shelter, before relenting a few minutes later.
What angered the woman, who spoke an Ethiopian dialect called Afaan Oromo and broken Arabic, was incomprehensible to the Ethiopian activists present at the scene. The high number of dialects spoken by Ethiopian workers, including Tigrinya, Amharic, and Wolayita, further hinders communication.
“All these problems are related to the Kafala system,” continued Mrs Sayah.
Lebanon held a two-day consultation in March with a view to improving the Standard Unified Contract for the Employment of (Migrant) Domestic Workers. Mrs Khazzal said changes had been delayed due to the coronavirus and economic downturn, but disputed the plight of the Ethiopian women was Kafala related.
"We are on the way to change our system, step by step, and soon we will announce these steps to the people," she said on Saturday.
"Yes we have a Kafala system and a problem with it, and I think we are now ready to dismantle it, or change it at least, but the current situation is different. This situation is caused by struggles (of the) Ethiopian government."
Four Ethiopian women The National spoke to described a life of abuse, neglect, and confinement in Lebanon.
“My employer was not good to me. She didn’t feed me enough. She didn’t allow me to go out to go to church on Sunday or speak to any other Ethiopian girls, even from the balcony” said Yatuba, 22. Since she arrived in Lebanon a year and a half ago, she has not been allowed a day off and worked from 6am to 11pm every day.
“My employer threatened me with a knife when I told her I wanted to go back to Ethiopia,” said Moulounesh, 22, gesturing with her hands to show how her employer beat her physically.
Her voice shaking, Yatuba told The National that she was driven to the consulate with just her passport and the clothes that she was wearing that day.
“I got into the taxi, and they gave me my passport. I didn’t know where I was going. I was surprised to be left at the consulate,” she said. Other women standing around her nodded as she spoke. None of them knew where they were going when they got into the car.
Asked in which Beirut neighbourhood she had lived for over a year, Yatuba answered that she did not know.
Ethiopian maids in Lebanon are highly vulnerable because they often hail from poor, rural areas and have little formal education, observed Zecharias Zelalem, an Ethiopian journalist who has extensively covered the plight of domestic workers.
“A lot of them haven’t been to the city before and saw [Ethiopian capital] Addis Ababa for the first time when they boarded their flight to Beirut. That’s one reason they are easy to manipulate by traffickers and employers,” he said.
Ethiopia banned its citizens from working in Lebanon in 2008 because of repeated cases of abuse, but this was never enforced, he added.
The embassy in Beirut has been criticised for failing to take the stranded women in, despite having a shelter on site.
"We know the Ethiopian embassy has a shelter so now we want to put pressure among NGOs for them to open it and also to see a holistic approach to cooperate with resources," said Ms Mohanna.
Families in Ethiopia also pressure the women to stay in Lebanon despite difficult work conditions, Zelalem added. “A lot of them underwent arranged marriages. Abusive husbands are accustomed to receiving money every month. It’s a source of anguish for many married women in Lebanon, but they obviously do not speak of their family ills in public,” he said.
Standing outside Le Charles hotel and sifting through a long list of names of women needing emergency shelter, activist Ashu Tadasse, who is also Ethiopian, could barely contain his anger.
“These women are under the responsibility of their sponsor. Why do they leave them like that in the street? Would they treat their children that way?”