MENA’s migrant workers suffering disproportionately amid COVID-19 restrictions

As in Doha, some migrant communities are raising their voices over the dire conditions.
Tuesday 26/05/2020
Ethiopian workers wait outside the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)
Ethiopian workers wait outside the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)

BEIRUT / TUNIS--As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rattle the worldwide economy, migrant workers in the Middle East and North Africa region are left especially vulnerable.

Long before the pandemic struck, they often lived and worked in dire conditions— with low wages, long hours and few labour law protections. Many were exploited due to their undocumented status and desperate economic situations.

Now as the COVID-19 crisis shutters many businesses and workplaces that rely on migrant workers, such as restaurants, cafes and construction sites, they find themselves in an even more precarious spot.

Nowhere is this more true than in Lebanon, which has some 250,000 registered migrant labourers — maids, garbage collectors, farm hands and construction workers — who were already suffering due to Lebanon’s preexisting economic crisis.

A file picture shows migrant workers eating at a construction site in the Qatari capital Doha.( AFP)
A file picture shows migrant workers eating at a construction site in the Qatari capital Doha.( AFP)

More than two months after coronavirus restrictions were imposed, these workers are growing more desperate and angry with the government’s neglect.

Lebanon’s unprecedented foreign currency crisis means that many migrants have not been paid for months or that the value of salaries is down by more than half. Others have lost their jobs after employers dumped them on the streets or outside their embassies.

“We are invisible,” said Banchi Yimer, an Ethiopian former domestic worker who founded a group that campaigns for domestic workers’ rights in Lebanon. “We don’t even exist for our governments, not just the Lebanese government.”

In just three days, she said, 20 Ethiopian domestic workers were abandoned by their sponsors and left outside the embassy. A video she posted showed women with as little as a backpack or a purse, lined up along the walls of the embassy — some sitting on the floor.

Compounding the problem is Lebanon’s ill-reputed sponsorship system, known in Arabic as “kafala,” that ties domestic workers to their sponsors and limits their freedom of movement.

Desperate acts such as suicide attempts and dangerous escape efforts are often blamed on the sponsorship system, which rights groups say creates near slave-like conditions. Some employers do not allow their helpers to go out on the street alone or have a day off.

Domestic workers are not protected by labour law and are often shackled in a 24-7 work schedule with no right to resign.

“Some of their employers abuse them mentally physically and there is no law to protect them. Their employers … treat them like slaves,” said Ethiopian activist Tsigereda Brihanu.

A 2016 International Labour Organisation study found that out of 1,200 employers surveyed, more than 94% withheld their workers’ passports.

Even those not subjected to the system are often trapped, unable to go home, because they cannot afford the exorbitant costs of repatriation flights or because global air travel is severely restricted.

In the Lebanese capital of Beirut, the financial chaos has added to their despair.

On Saturday, a Filipina domestic worker took her own life a day after arriving at a shelter run by the Philippines Embassy for workers waiting to return home after losing their jobs. In a statement Monday, the embassy said she died after jumping from a room she was sharing with two others.

Both the Philippines Embassy and Lebanese authorities said they were investigating the death.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, migrant workers out of work are often ineligible for financial aid from the government to help weather the coronavirus pandemic, and some have been disproportionately exposed to the virus.

In Qatar, for instance, the old industrial zone where many migrant workers live and work has emerged as a hotspot for coronavirus, putting many at risk.

Coronavirus is also spreading in multiple work facilities throughout the country due to poor conditions that create fertile ground for the virus, according to a health expert quoted on the American CBS TV channel.

Some of the migrant communities are raising their voices over the dire conditions. Over the weekend, migrant workers staged a rare protest in Qatar over unpaid wages, local media reported. Doha has faced frequent criticism by rights organisations over the poor conditions of migrant labourers, especially those working on construction sites for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

In some other countries of the region, like Tunisia, there have been initiatives to help raise funds for struggling migrant workers amid the pandemic, but these are a far cry from the support many need to get back on their feet.

“Migrant workers have been left aside by governments who have relied on them to do dangerous jobs that have become even more dangerous during this crisis,” David Welsh, country director of the South-east Asia branch of the Solidarity Centre, told the Straits Times.