The Toll of Coronavirus on Domestic Workers in Lebanon: from Isolation to Confinement
In April, a Nigerian domestic worker, who has been in Lebanon for three months, threw herself from the window. Her fall resulted in numerous bone fractures and she had to be taken to a hospital. She suffered from a mental disorder according to the investigation led upon Kafa’s request. After having spent a week at the hospital, she couldn't extend her stay since her insurance company stopped covering the fees and there was no association willing to do so. Indeed, private hospital charges are particularly high and public hospitals are heavily mobilized by Coronavirus cases. She remained at the hospital for four more days, as Kafa covered the charges, then she went back to her employers’ house and is now waiting for the first plane to go back to her country.
During the same month, another Nigerian worker found herself sitting, half naked, on the sidewalk of a street in Beirut. The person who found her contacted Kafa’s support hotline. She was in psychological distress.
Still in April, two ads to sell two workers were shared on social media. The first one said: “Domestic worker, African nationality (Nigerian), for sale with a new residency permit and completed legal documents. Age: 20 years, she is energetic and very clean.” The second ad was for an “Ethiopian worker, with residency permit, speaks Arabic, for LBP 2 250 000.”
Also at the beginning of the lockdown, we saw a video of a domestic worker trying to escape the house of her employers. She went on the balcony and started coming down, one floor at a time.
Coronavirus took a disastrous toll on migrant workers in Lebanon, tightening the noose around their necks. What we have witnessed last month is a mere sample of a phenomenon that could rapidly increase if swift measures are not undertaken.
These workers already live under the Kafala system and are deprived of their most basic rights such as the right of movement and of changing jobs. The economic collapse that the country has been witnessing for a few months has spurred their sorrow and vulnerability, only to be further exacerbated by the confinement imposed since mid-March.
The Economic Crisis and its Impact on Women Workers
Almost five months ago, with the beginning of the economic meltdown, many people lost their jobs. A large part of them are, in turn, employers of women workers and can no longer pay their salaries in dollars. It should be noted here that many employers, even those with goodwill, do not, under normal circumstances, pay the wages of their workers periodically, "for fear that they will flee". With the onset of the unprecedented economic crisis in the country, failure to pay became a given fact.
During this period, thousands of workers flocked to their embassies, and hundreds of them out of the approximately 250,000 migrant domestic workers present in Lebanon were deported according to general estimates.
At that time, Kafa called a meeting with embassies, associations working with domestic workers and representatives of those workers to assess the impact of the financial crisis on the situation of women workers and to suggest practical measures that can be undertaken to alleviate the tragedies that may result. Indeed, large numbers of workers are present in a country that is going bankrupt and that is unable to provide them with protection.
Kafa then submitted to the General Security the demands resulting from this meeting, namely facilitating the travel of workers who no longer wished to stay in Lebanon, especially those who are paid by the hour, by exempting them from paying the fines resulting from breaking the residency permit and by refraining from arresting them because they violated the residency system. The General Security’s response was that they would take immediate measures to allow women workers to travel, and that they will fine them for one year only, regardless of the number of violations. They also committed to not arresting them, unless there were criminal charges against them. However, before the General Security’s decision could be notified, Coronavirus spread and the airport closed.
Women workers who live in the house of their employers and whose work contracts have expired, i.e. the first category of workers, and those who are paid by the hour, i.e. the second category, can no longer leave the country.
The Toll of Coronavirus on Women Workers
As we mentioned earlier, since the beginning of the economic crisis, with the scarcity of dollars and the rise in exchange rate, almost all domestic workers in the first and second categories, stopped receiving their wages in dollars. And if they receive their salaries in Lebanese pounds, the amount is calculated at the official exchange rate, not at that of the market. Therefore, their salaries are worth much less with the deterioration of the national currency.
Regarding workers who live in the house of their employers, they are ‒ the employers that is ‒ constantly at home because of confinement. This means an additional workload for the domestic worker and longer hours. Moreover, the suffering of the Lebanese families in these circumstances inevitably impacts the worker, one way or another. Under the Kafala system and on normal days, it is not possible to know the working conditions between closed doors and whether the worker is exposed to violence. This is rendered even more complicated by the crisis.
It is worth noting here that many of the calls received on our support line for women victims of trafficking are from employers reporting domestic workers who attempted suicide, or tried to throw themselves from the balcony. Employers also often describe a psychological disorder that the worker suffers from. They say they do not know how to react. Some of them ask what can be done regarding the salaries since they do not have dollars and are unable to pay the dollar exchange rate according to the market price. There are also calls from individuals who saw workers on the street in extreme psychological distress.
By observing the situation of several workers, it was found that they suffer from mental disorders that could lead to hallucinations and suicide attempts.
What to do in this situation? We are facing a dead end. Hospitalization is very difficult to secure, as mentioned previously. Legal psychiatrists can’t come to see a worker because of the imposed confinement. Existing shelters currently do not receive new people, particularly if the worker suffers from mental disorders, since they lack specialized teams.
What did some employers do when they were no longer able to pay the worker's salary or when they no longer wished for her to stay in their home? Some of them have resorted to unethical and illegal methods. Some left the worker on the street, and submitted a notification saying she had fled, to limit their responsibility, and others put her up for sale.
In response to sale ads published on social media, Kafa sent two reports to the Ministry of Labor and to the ISF’s Human Trafficking Repression Bureau. After an investigation was launched, the author of the first ad said that she did not place it with the intention of selling the worker, but rather to find a new employer for the worker. Here, regardless of whether her intentions were good or bad, we are once again confronted to the Kafala system that is unfair not only ‒ but mainly ‒ for workers, but also for employers. Among the system’s disadvantages is that it does not account for any mechanism allowing to normally break the contract. It thus opens the door to such advertisements. In normal circumstances, if one of the parties wants to terminate a contract, the employer transfers “the ownership” of the worker to the next employer.
Once Kafa demanded that the Ministry of Labor issues a decree on the illegality of such ads, the Ministry recently issued a circular warning employers against such actions under penalty of taking appropriate legal measures.
As for the second category of domestic workers, who live in homes that they rent and work by the hour, their situation is originally illegal as most of them left their employer's home. They are responsible for their daily subsistence and housing. With the beginning of confinement, their work stopped or was drastically reduced. In consequence, they were unable to pay the rent and secure enough money for their daily life and medical care, especially as the Ministry of Health does not cover healthcare for foreigners and they do not have any health insurance. Furthermore, most of these workers live in neglected areas and overcrowded houses, and this definitely does not protect them from the virus.
Services Provided by Kafa
Kafa continues to provide legal and social support to workers who reach out to our center and who are victims of violence and exploitation. Within our limited capabilities and our efforts to cope with the Corona crisis, we managed to allocate an amount of money to help the workers we are able to reach get by. We are also in the process of signing an agreement with the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Beirut to conduct Coronavirus detection tests for domestic workers. According to the result, they will be transferred to a governmental hospital, or we will receive them in a small space we have allocated for this purpose for a period ranging between 15 days and a month, until they can be transferred to our special shelter for victims of human trafficking. Investigations can then be followed up at the level of police stations.
Under these circumstances, regardless of the size of the provided assistance ‒ it remains limited compared to the size of the problem ‒ there is a fear of increased instances of displacement on sidewalks, mental disorders, suicide attempts, and violence against migrant domestic workers. Therefore, the Ministry of Labor should activate a hotline to receive domestic workers' complaints in several languages, making it easier for them to call and communicate.
It is also necessary to organize special flights and take immediate measures to ensure the return of some workers to their homes in coordination with their embassies, and immediately start thinking about an alternative system that protects the rights of workers and employers in normal circumstances and reduces the impact of crisis and extreme situations on their situation.
Translated from Arabic by Work With Words