Urgent appeal: Migrant workers trapped in Lebanon are at risk!

The following appeal was sent to AU mechanisms and UN Special Procedures including the  SR on the right of migrant workers, the SR on contemporary forms of slavery and the SR on contemporary forms of racism along with the Committee on Migrant Workers on July 7, 2020. We urge you to circulate it, issue similar public statements and urge relevant entities to take immediate action. 

Urgent appeal: Migrant workers trapped in Lebanon are at risk!

Lebanon’s current economic, political, and coronavirus crises have trapped migrant workers in the country, where they are now facing increasing hunger, homelessness, and exploitation without any protection. More than 100 migrant domestic workers have been abandoned by their employers or sponsors at their consulates, where they can receive little support, and many more have become homeless.

With the worsening economic conditions, deaths of migrant women are only expected to increase. In the past few months, suspected suicides or murders of migrant workers have become a frequent occurrence in Lebanon, with local reports recording at least two to three incidents a week. According to the General Security statistics, two migrant workers die every week. On 14 March, Faustina Tay, a Ghanian domestic worker, was found dead under her employer’s fourth-storey home. Prior to her death,Tay asked her sponsor to travel back home due to the abuse she endured.  She worked for months in exchange for her return ticket home and was made to sign a paper that she’ll keep working for free until she returns home. Early May, two workers were found dead, one of whom was lynched. On 19 June, an Ethiopian worker was found dead in her employer’s home. 

The shortage of US dollars in Lebanon started months prior to the Lebanese uprising in October 2019, leading to an economic crisis and the rapid devaluation of the Lebanese currency, Lira. The currency has lost 70{8016632cfab4181dbd9365397716e01313460296a8380c6a7260b4d5e93a4f80} of its value since October, with skyrocketing unemployment and the tripling of prices of many essential goods. The crisis has severely impacted Migrant Workers, particularly domestic workers. Migrant domestic labor in Lebanon is regulated through the Kafala (sponsorship) system, which enables abuse and exploitation of workers by requiring them to obtain their work and residency permits through their employers. Workers under the Kafala system are excluded from  the Lebanese Labor Law and as such do not benefit from any of its protections, including minimum wage, maximum working hours, social security, and the right to organize and unionize. The sponsor has the power to determine a worker’s legal status or to revoke it. There are at least 250,000 migrant workers in Lebanon, according to Amnesty, many of whom are employed by middle-class households as domestic staff, although activists estimate the number may be higher. A large proportion of that workforce is Ethiopian, and some are from other African and Asian countries.

Prior to the crisis, international and local organizations and migrant workers themselves have spoken out about the kafala system, even 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 of their conditions, and survivors of the kafala system in Lebanon have given testimonies about horrid level of exploitation and physical abuse. The UN expert on contemporary forms of slavery has commented several times on the abuses caused by the sponsorship system.

Additionally, during Lebanon’s UPR in 2015, States participating in the Working Group have issued several recommendations to the Lebanese authorities, including improving the situation of migrant workers and amending the Labor Law to extend legal protection to domestic workers, to abolish the sponsorship system and to ratify human rights instruments such as the ILO Convention 189 (domestic workers) and the Convention on the rights of migrant workers.

Domestic workers are being dismissed by their employers at an unprecedented rate. As a result, many workers are made homeless and most workers cannot afford basic necessities. In only two months (May and June 2020), the Anti-Racism Movement received more than 1,000 calls from migrant workers of different nationalities asking for food as they can no longer afford it, many calling on behalf of their families or apartments with up to ten or twenty people. These numbers show an alarming hyperdeterioration of the living conditions of migrant workers, despite the work of migrant workers feminist collectives such as Egna Legna Besidet, which have been providing their communities with food. Migrant workers are now at a precarious situation and at risk of starvation. 

ARM also reported that more than 100 migrant workers of different nationalities have been abandoned by their employers or went to their embassy / consulate after becoming homeless in the first few weeks of June 2020. The majority of these workers are Ethiopian due to the size of the Ethiopian community in Lebanon. This does not include the hundreds of women seeking help from their embassies and consulates, ARM, and other organizations every week – but who are still trapped in their employers homes or are living on their own.

The Ethiopian consulate initially closed its doors to its citizens but public outrage led to the replacement of the consul on Friday 26 June. The new consul opened the consulate’s shelter to the 13 women and some of the others left at its doorstep, although concerns were also raised about the conditions of that shelter. Additionally, some of the workers were taken to a shelter run by Caritas. However, 13 Ethiopian women left by 22 June and have reported concerning violations of their rights during their stay. Providing shelter is not enough as it does not ensure that workers get back their unpaid wages or the cost of the ticket home. The workers are demanding repatriation.

There are several barriers to this urgent repatriation: the cost of the ticket, the cost of the mandatory quarantine (now reduced from 14 to 3 days in Ethiopia), the penalty fees for workers who overstayed their residency, and the quotas on the number of returnees allowed into each country per day. In addition, many of the workers who leave would effectively forego their right to compensation for their labor as no accessible justice mechanism currently exists to guarantee that they are paid the wages they are owed. 

Sponsors of domestic workers are contractually obligated to provide the cost of the ticket back home. Yet the Lebanese Ministry of Labor has consistently failed to hold sponsors to their obligation. The Lebanese and Ethiopian governments have also failed to devise an evacuation plan for the workers. 

Thus, many workers are now left stranded, trapped and at risk in Lebanon and subjected to both Lebanese and their national authorities’ lack of response. We are deeply concerned about migrant workers in Lebanon, and Ethiopian domestic workers in specific.  Migrant workers have the right to go back to their countries, and therefore, we call on you to:

  • Issue a public statement urging the Lebanese Ministry of Labor  to (1) immediately provide support and protection to workers who have lost their jobs and are now left without access to basic necessities, and are even homeless, and (2) hold their sponsors accountable for unpaid wages, abuse, and abandonment.
  • Sending a communication to the Lebanese government to commit to its 2015 UPR recommendations which include abolishing the inhumane Kafala system which have been previously denounced by several UN mechanisms such as the United Nations Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity, UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and UN expert of contemporary forms of slavery.
  • Remind the Ethiopian government to urge its consulate in Lebanon to act within its obligations, which include ensuring the safety and wellbeing of its citizens, in addition to facilitating support, protection and repatriation as within the framework of international law and a number of International Conventions that protect the rights of migrants. These include: 1) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1996 2) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 3) Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, 1949 4) Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 1979 and ILO instruments on the rights of migrants, which are:  The Migration for Employment Convention (revised), 1949 (No. 97) accompanied by Migration for Employment Recommendation (Revised), 1949 (No.86); Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 (No. 143);
  • To encourage the embassies and consulates of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon to intensify their working hours and increase in human resources to fast-track paperwork, and collaborate with Lebanese authorities for quick registration and repatriation processes.

If these urgent steps are not taken seriously and implemented immediately, then thousands of workers will be left stranded and starving with no access to food or shelter. Most are likely to fall victim to hardship, exploitation and extortion in their desperate effort to return to their homes and families. Additionally, the majority of migrant workers are most exposed to the possibility of COVID-19 infection, owing to squalid living conditions, and exclusion from already limited social protection. This is creating a humanitarian crisis for migrant workers in Lebanon, and without action, it will only get unfathomably worse.

If procedures to ensure the safe return of workers are not taken immediately, then this would only allow the continuation and exacerbation of contemporary forms of slavery in Lebanon as defined by the OHCHR. With the absence of the rule of law and systemic approaches to ensure the protection of migrant workers, workers will be left with little to no options but to be subjected to  labour exploitation, forced labour and trafficking with little prospect of obtaining redress or justice.

In October 2019, the AU announced that it is working on a multilateral framework on labour migration management, which will be a State-led dialogue process to address issues of common interest between Africa and Middle East, mainly bothering protection of labour migrants, provision of decent jobs, fair and non-discriminatory wages as well as ensuring ethical practices in recruitment and employment. The ongoing dire situation only proves the necessity of this framework. Therefore, we urge that the African Union takes these immediate actions, within the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights resolutions on migrant workers rights framework:

–       Issue public statements condemning the violations committed by Lebanese authorities against migrant domestic workers from African countries.

–       Demand that the Ethiopian consulates establish an evacuation plan to ensure the repatriation of migrant domestic workers.

–       To develop an emergency repatriation plan and provide temporary emergency AU passports to domestic workers whose passports were taken by recruitment agencies and sponsors.

–       Work on an evacuation plan sponsored by the AU.