Lebanon’s economic crisis highlights plight of migrant workers
Bangladeshi garbage collectors renegotiated their wages after a three-week strike
Wearing his traditional Bangladeshi lungi skirt, 20-year old Fahim* staves off the boredom and the stifling Lebanese heat by lying in his triple bunk bed in a small room that he shares with nine other workers, hoping for some air from the fan.
After striking with his colleagues for 24 days – an extremely rare event in Lebanon – Fahmi said he would return his gruelling work of picking up garbage off the streets of Beirut on Thursday.
“It’s all good,” he told The National, seemingly content with the deal that was struck with his company, one week after a violent confrontation with riot police that left him battered and bruised.
Coupled with repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, Lebanon’s worst-ever crisis has shined the spotlight on the plight of the country’s invisible migrant workers and the gaps in local labour laws. Wearing distinctive uniforms, they take jobs locals do not want, cleaning restaurants, hospitals or collecting rubbish for low wages and little protection from abuse.
For the first time in three years of operations, waste management company Ramco’s 250 Bangladeshi employees decided to stop working on April 27. The main reason, they say, was that they were unhappy about their wages losing over half their value because of the country’s cash crisis. Paid in the local currency, their salary of $375 a month – which can increase by over $100 with overtime – is now worth only about $150.
Discontent among workers had also recently spiked because the company reduced its operations by 60 per cent for a week, which deprived workers of overtime pay, said general manager Walid Bou Saad. Ramco could not afford buying diesel for its trucks following delays in payment from the government, forcing it to cough up the money as waste piled up in the streets of Mount Lebanon. This was followed by the closure of a local dump for a week.
On May 12, employees escalated their strike by gathering in the compound’s courtyard, located off a highway outside Beirut, to increase pressure on their management to pay them either in dollars or in Lebanese pounds but at the black market rate.
The peg of 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar is still officially in place but not applied to daily transactions inside Lebanon anymore. After several months of crisis, one dollar is now worth around 4,000 Lebanese pounds. Ramco says it cannot afford paying salaries at that rate.
From that point, the story diverges: Bangladeshi workers say they protested peacefully, chanting angry slogans at the company, but management accuses them of inflicting damage amounting to $25,000 to its property and locking employees of other nationalities in their rooms.
Footage from security cameras shared by Mr Bou Saad show employees in uniforms committing acts of vandalism inside their compound building, including breaking cameras, glass windows and furniture.
Ramco eventually called riot police, who used tear gas to disperse protesters and arrested one of them. A video of the clashes went viral on social media.
“It is unusual to see companies calling for police interference during a strike by migrant workers, but it’s also uncommon for them to strike in the first place,” said Zeina Mezher, ILO’s labour migration focal person for Lebanon. Lebanese laws give employees the right to strike if complaints have not been addressed.
Negotiations involving the labour ministry and the Bangladeshi embassy ensued, resulting in an agreement that slightly increased employees’ pay in the local currency. The embassy and Ramco asked for the figure to not be disclosed, fearing that the 150,000 other Bangladeshi employees across the country would raise similar demands. The labour ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
To prove its good faith, Ramco made a show of transparency, allowing journalists to enter the compound and talk to employees. In the meantime, it hired Syrian daily labourers to keep working at full capacity. The company’s 100 Lebanese and 120 Indian garbage collectors also continued working, said Mr Bou Saad.
Problems started last November, when Ramco switched from paying its employees in dollars to Lebanese pounds after its sole contractor, the Lebanese state, also made the change, breaking the terms of its contract with the company. But it had little choice.
The inflow of dollars, which were used before interchangeably with the local currency, started to noticeably dry up last year after a loss of confidence in the Lebanese economy. With the closure of the airport on March 18 to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, dollars are increasingly hard to find, even on the black market.
As a result, Bangladeshi workers are stuck: they cannot leave the country and at the same time, the money they earn is now barely enough to feed their families back home. “They are in a hellish situation,” economist and former labour minister Charbel Nahas told The National.
“These people are here temporarily in the hope of saving up some cash for their families and their objective is to return to their country. They are evidently not in a situation that encourages them to challenge their employers. The pressure must have been very strong for them to rebel. This is a first,” he said.
Some broke down under the pressure. The case of Mohammad Enayetullah has become a point of contention between the Ramco and employees, who accuse the company of torturing him. They allege that he was locked up in isolation for three days, tied with ropes and beaten by security guards following a mental breakdown during which he became aggressive.
Ramco general manager Walid Bou Saad rejected accusations of ill-treatment, saying that Mohammad Enayetullah was isolated for three hours, not three days, to protect him and others from harm. Mr Bou Saad showed The National medical reports from April 9, prior to the strike, saying that he suffered from depression and panic attacks.
Asked about the incident, Mohammad Enayetullah said that he was beaten and locked up for several days, though he does not know how long, and denies that he was self-harming. “I want to go home now,” he repeated, saying that he had been unable to financially support his wife and two children in Bangladesh for the past six months.
But his colleagues recounted the incident in detail in front of him, discreetly gesturing with their hands that he was mentally disturbed. They say that after his release, they called a Bangladeshi religious scholar on the phone, asking him to perform a ceremony to release Mohammad Enayetullah of the djinn, or evil spirit.
But the attempt at spiritual healing was unsuccessful. Mohammad Enayetullah now divides his time between prayer and sleep, and refuses to go back to work, waiting for the airport to open. “I cannot find a solution for him. This person needs to go and as long as he stays here, his problems escalate,” said Mr Bou Saad.
Muhammad Arman Prodhan, welfare assistant at the embassy of Bangladesh in Lebanon, said that employees were not able to provide proof of torture, adding that “living conditions are very good at Ramco compared to other camps.” “I told them, if you are not happy, I’ll bring charter flights to you, but they said no sir, we are happy. We don’t want to go, the only problem is the dollar,” said Mr Bou Saad.
But employees told The National that several sticking points remain. They want the release of the protester detained on May 12 during clashes with riot police and better food and living conditions.
“We eat lentils all the time, except on Monday, when we get chicken, and Friday, when we get fish,” said one man standing inside Mohamed Enayetullah’s room. He pointed to the fans. “There are only two: that’s not enough for nine people,” he added. On Thursday, the temperature in Beirut climbed to 35 degrees, with 58 per cent humidity.
Bangladeshi workers’ needs are entirely taken care of by Ramco, which feeds and houses them during their three-year contract. Under Lebanon’s sponsorship law, or kafala system, Ramco acts as their legal guardian.
Mrs Mezher said that she hoped that the Ramco strike would act as a “trigger for reform of the whole cleaning sector.”
“During a crisis, all problems are highlighted, but they did not start now. The dollar crisis may be very real, but the context goes way back and is rooted in the kafala system,” that gives employers a significant amount of control on their lives and fails to protect them from abuse, she said.
The ILO has not conducted inquiries into the Ramco strike but called for a transparent investigation. “From earlier interviews with employees and employers of the cleaning sector, we noticed that there are gaps in a number of issues: are workers’ number of working hours respected? Do they have proper accommodation? Are they forced to pay for their recruitment? Do they have access to social security benefits? Are there proper complaint mechanisms that can prevent problems from putting migrant workers at further vulnerability? Is their right to join trade unions respected so they can act collectively?” asked Mrs Mezher.
Ramco employees addressed certain aspects of these issues with The National. Sitting in the compound’s empty canteen, Abir said that he and his colleagues paid middlemen in Bangladesh at least $4,000 each to get to Lebanon, where they believed that their salaries would be as high as $700 a month. They borrowed money to pay the sum and now struggle to reimburse it.
Because of the debt, many hesitate to return home. Often illiterate, hailing from poor rural families, they say they would not find work in Bangladesh and hope that the Lebanese economy will improve.
Others have preferred to leave. At Ramco, 139 employees from both India and Bangladesh returned home before the airport closed. Mr Prodhan told The National that over 7,500 Bangladeshis living in Lebanon asked their embassy to take part in a special repatriation programme that was set up late 2019 following the cash crisis. He said that 1,200 Bangladeshis managed to leave before the airport’s closure, and the rest should follow when it reopens.
Back at the Ramco compound, employees relish in small changes brought on by their strike. “We are not afraid, just worried the situation could deteriorate again” said Fahim.
He walks up to the building’s third floor with some friends. A broken glass door hangs open, looking onto a roof where clothes are drying in the blazing sun. “This door used to be always closed,” they said excitedly. “We broke it during the protests. Now we can go outside.” A management source said that walking on the roof is banned for safety reasons.
* Names of Bangladeshi employees were changed to protect their identity except for Mohammad Enayetullah whose name is already public on social media
Updated: May 25, 2020 02:11 PM