Urgent Joint Appeal: Migrant workers in Lebanon are hostages amidst the economic crisis!

URGENT APPEAL AND CALL TO ACTION!

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We urgently call on the Lebanese General Security, the relevant embassies and consulates, and international organizations to directly address the impact of Lebanon’s economic crisis on migrant domestic workers, by facilitating optional repatriation and instituting policies to address abuse and nonpayment or underpayment of wages during the dollar shortage. In this time of revolution and the economic situation, migrant workers are suffering most acutely, losing up to 40% of their salaries as the Lebanese pound devalues, and prevented from traveling home if they choose.

  • Background: The Revolution and Economic Crisis in Lebanon

On October 17, 2019, around a million residents in Lebanon took to the streets to protest the government’s economic policies, which introduced austerity measures due to the deficit in the government’s budget. As a result of the ongoing protests, the prime minister resigned on October 29 after protestors refused a reform paper his government suggested on October 21. 

To explain further, a shortage of US dollars in Lebanon started months prior to the spark of the Lebanese revolution, leading to a crisis of imports of gasoline, wheat, and medicine, as imports are paid in USD. This crisis intensified when banks closed from October 17 to November 1, with the application of an informal capital control based on a circular issued by Banque du Liban, giving banks the freedom to limit individuals’ USD cash withdrawals to 500 USD per week. As a result, Lebanon now has two exchange rates, the official rate used by BDL and banks that is 1 USD =1, 515 L.L, and that of the actual market that is fluctuating between 1900 and 2500 L.L.  

As a result, many businesses have closed and laid off workers, or are paying as little as 40% of their wages.  Minimum wage in Lebanon is 400 USD/month. This disparity in the two rates has also led to an increase in the prices of food and other items.

  • Impact on Migrant Workers

 This affects all residents in Lebanon, yet it hits hardest the migrant population that works under the kafala system (sponsorship system), where foreign workers and particularly migrant domestic workers are legally bound to a sponsor (employer) that individually determines their wages, working conditions, living conditions, and work continuation. Workers under the Kafala system are not protected by the Lebanese labor law, as domestic and agriculture work are excluded from the law itself. The sponsor has all the power to determine their legal status or to revoke it. Prior to the crisis, international and local organizations and migrant workers themselves have spoken out about the kafala system, even the current Ministor of Labor has called it  as modern slavery, international media outlets have written extensively about racism and exploitation of migrant workers in Lebanon, and international campaigns have broken that silence against the high death toll of migrant domestic workers committing suicide as they only way out from their conditions, and survivors of the kafala system in Lebanon have given testimonies about horrid level of exploitation and physical abuse.

Many migrant domestic workers transfer their wages in dollars to their families in their home countries – many were either paid in USD or were able to easily convert LL to USD during the transfer process. But as the crisis tightens, they are no longer able to transfer their money, as exchange agencies have refused all transactions to outside Lebanon in any currency except dollars. MDWs are now forced to exchange their wages from Lebanese pounds to US dollars based on a variety of rates, causing them to lose 20 to 30% of their money in the process, in addition to the transfer fee. Migrant domestic workers are at risk of losing up to 40% of their wages in these conditions. As the crisis tightens, and due to the long history of exploitation existing already against them in Lebanon, there are serious concerns that many employers might withhold the workers’ wages, and under the kafala system, MDWs have no access to legal mechanisms that can offer protection in these conditions.

If migrant domestic workers cannot simply decide they want to leave Lebanon. In practice, the Kafala system gives the employer the right to end the contract early, and regardless of whether the contract is finished or not, they are the one to purchase the ticket and process the legal papers needed for the MDW to exit Lebanon. This is the case for workers who have a valid residency in Lebanon. However, there are tens of thousands of undocumented migrant workers who work as “freelancers,” who don’t have valid residency permits or even their passports, as most of them have fled their employer’s homes due to abuse, nonpayment of wages, or other violations. Regardless of how terrible the reason, a worker who leaves her employer becomes “illegal,” while her employer does not incur any penalty

These undocumented workers face incredible barriers to leaving Lebanon, as legal and financial obstacles hinder this process. For example, employers commonly report workers who have fled their employers’ homes to the authorities as “runaways” to absolve themselves of their responsibility for the worker. When this happens, the worker becomes undocumented and then is forced to pay the ticket for her repatriation or deportation, as well as $200 per year in penalty fees, for every year she had expired residency and work permits. Workers can thus be stuck in Lebanon, in detention or working without documentation, indefinitely. Hundreds of MDWs stay months in prison awaiting money for their ticket and their embassies’ support in providing new traveling documents. Many embassies and consulates provide no or little support for their citizens. Under the economic crisis, this is even worse: migrant workers are trapped in Lebanon and face further exploitation and abuse.

  • Call to Action

 The undersigned are deeply concerned about the population of migrant workers in Lebanon. There could be a crisis that will cause hundreds of thousands of migrants to be trapped in Lebanon facing exploitation, abuse, and violence with no protection. They will face indefinite imprisonment if they ask for deportation, as we assume that employers will avoid paying the cost of travelling, or they will be trapped in employers’ houses if embassies and the Ministry of Labor don’t engage in a process to follow up with those who are working within homes but wish to leave.  Migrant workers have the right to go back to their countries, and therefore, we call on:

3.1) The Lebanese General Security:

1-      To issue a special circular to facilitate the exit process of migrant domestic workers through:

– An amnesty period that allows irregular workers to register for repatriation, with General Security

(1) speeding up the process of investigation and repatriation

(2) permitting these irregular workers who want to travel to register without being detained,

(3) Exempting them from the annual penalty fees, to facilitate their ability to travel as soon as possible, in order to

– Supporting document migrant workers to travel by facilitating a quick resolution with their employers, in cases where employers refuse to support the repatriation or in cases of reported abuse.

2-      To create a special task force with the embassies of the MDW to fast track paperwork, reduce the time for investigations of abuse, trafficking, and nonpayment of wages, and issuing of new travel documents.

 

3.2) Embassies of MDW 

We call on embassies to declare emergency plans and secure financial and human resources to repatriate migrant workers wishing to leave Lebanon. We are encouraged by the example of the Philippines embassy, which has opened a registration period until December 15 for MDWs from the Philippines to register for free repatriation in February. The Philippines government is covering the cost of tickets and penalty fees.

 We encourage the embassies and consulates to intensify their working hours and increase in human resource to fast track paperwork, and collaborate with General Security for quick registration and repatriation processes

 

Signatories:

  1. Urgent Action Fund
  2. AWID
  3. CIVICUS
  4. Regional Coalition of Women Human Rights Defenders in MENA
  5. The Arab African Women’s Forum
  6. L’Union Féministe Libre/ Morocco
  7. Withouw/ Switzerland 
  8. No to Women’s Oppression Initiative/ Sudan
  9. Domestic Workers Unite Inc/ Canada
  10. Female Journalists network/ Sudan
  11. Kantipur publication/ Nepal
  12. Workers’ Center/ Jordan
  13. Ranao Women and Children Resource Center, Inc/ Philippines 
  14. Colectivo de Trabajadoras y Trabajadores Sociales de Honduras/ Honduras
  15. Red Nacional de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos en Honduras/ Honduras
  16. OKUP (Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program)/ Bangladesh
  17. ILO Work in Freedom Programme
  18. O collective/ Pakistan
  19. Yale Global Health Justice Partnership
  20. Donia for Sustainable Development
  21. Women’s Rehabilitation Center (WOREC)/ Nepal
  22. Donia for Sustainable Development
  23. Kvinna till Kvinna
  24. International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific
  25. Spotlight Center for law and human Rights
  26. To Be Foundation/ Yemen
  27. POURAKHI/ Nepal
  28. Horeya/ Egypt
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