A taxi pulled up to the Ethiopian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, where a crowd of women were already gathered.
The women gathered around the car as a teary-eyed young woman got out. The driver, looking disgruntled by the attention, unloaded a large black suitcase, which a pair of the women hauled onto the sidewalk while another one hugged the crying new arrival, before walking her over to join the others sitting along the wall with their suitcases looking dejected.
Some of the women had slept on the sidewalk the night before. Some had small children with them. One young woman, who others said was mentally ill, stood alone, singing to herself and ignoring the crowd around her.
It is a scene that has become perversely normal in recent days.
On Friday, 35 women who had been sleeping in front of embassy were brought to a shelter run by the NGO Caritas. But by Monday, the numbers had swelled again.
The new arrival, Lomi, told Al Arabiya English that she was 20 years old and had arrived in Lebanon just over a year ago to work to help her parents in Ethiopia. With one of the other women translating from Amharic – Ethiopia’s official language – Lomi said her employer, who hadn’t paid her wages in four months, had thrown her out. After Lomi pushed for the money she was owed, her employer called a cab and sent her off – with one suitcase but without her passport.
“What’s going to happen with me tomorrow or after tomorrow?” she said. “What can I do, where can I go? What am I going to eat and drink? Where is my money from the last four months?”
With the dramatic devaluation of Lebanon’s currency in recent months, even the cheap labor provided by migrant domestic workers from Ethiopia and other African and Asian countries has become unaffordable for many of the middle and working-class Lebanese households that previously took the presence of a live-in domestic worker for granted.
Increasingly, migrant domestic workers have gone unpaid or been cut loose.
Employers have begun dropping off their former workers in front of the embassy, where other workers have been gathering to demand assistance repatriating the women.
“You see these ones? They brought them today with their bags,” said Hanna Tadasa, another one of the women in front of the embassy, gesturing at the line of women sitting against the wall.
Tadasa said she had been in Lebanon for three years and has been out of work for six months and bouncing between different friends’ houses because she can’t afford to pay rent.
Addressing a hypothetical employer, Tadasa said, “Madame, my dear, you have parents. [These women] also have parents in their country. Don’t bring them and throw them outside. Shame on you. We are humans.”
She added that the embassy had given no clear answers about the repatriation process.
“Every day they tell us come back on Monday, and when Monday comes there’s nothing,” she said. “I want to travel to my country and live in dignity with my family.”
Ethiopian Consul Aklilu Tatere Wube did not respond to a request for comment. Iman Khazaal, head of the Lebanese Ministry of Labor’s employment department in Mount Lebanon, told Al Arabiya English that a major barrier to repatriation of the workers was the Ethiopian government’s requirement that those wanting to return must pay not only for the airplane ticket – at a cost of around $680 – but also for a two-week hotel stay to quarantine upon arrival, at a rate of $40 to $100 per night.
“That makes departing impossible – not just hard, impossible,” Khazaal said. She said Lebanese officials had pushed for the Ethiopian government to drop the requirement, but without success.
“The ball is in the playground of Ethiopia,” she said. “They have to facilitate (the workers’) departing.”
Khazaal said employers who dumped workers at the embassy could face penalties but with many women lacking passports, it was difficult to ascertain which workers had been dumped by their employers and which were “irregular workers” who had left their employers of their own volition. Still, she added, “Even if they are irregular, they need protection.”
Fueling a push for reforms
Lebanon’s “kafala” sponsorship system for migrant domestic workers had been under fire by labor and human rights advocates long before the current crisis. Over the past year, officials have embarked on serious discussions about overhauling the system. The discussions have also gained new currency amid mass anti-racism protests in the US and worldwide that have thrown a spotlight on the treatment of African immigrants in Lebanon.
The current legal framework for migrant workers ties the worker’s legal presence in the country to a specific employer, does not allow the worker to change employers without the permission of the first employer, and makes renewal of residency and work permits contingent on the employer.
Migrant domestic workers are also not covered by the same labor protections as other employees.
Zeina Mezher, the International Labour Organization’s focal person in Lebanon for labor migration issues, said the situation brought about by the coronavirus and Lebanon’s economic crisis has highlighted already existing problems in the kafala system.
“The crisis situation shows the vulnerability of migrant workers under the kafala system,” she said. “…This whole crisis is highlighting these issues that we should not only dismantle kafala but approach domestic work differently.
In the current situation, Mezher said, “What’s happening is that many employers are no longer able to afford to pay the workers, and the worker has no option to change employers or leave the employer without becoming irregular.”
The ILO has been advocating for the Ministry of Labor to create a mechanism for migrant workers who do not want to leave the country to legally change employers, she said, as well as for protection of the right of the workers who do choose to return to pursue claims for unpaid wages.
Meanwhile, in order to put a halt to the practice of employers dumping workers on the streets, Mezher said “a strong message that they would be held accountable” is necessary.
Hayat, an Ethiopian woman who is still employed but has been coming to the embassy to bring water and other items to the women stranded there, told Al Arabiya English, “If [the employer] doesn’t have money, she should send [the worker] back to her country, not dump her here.”
She added, “For a long time we’ve been working in Lebanon and helping the old and young women and the children.”
She gestured at the women around her: “Now they can’t eat or drink. They don’t even have clothes…There’s no money in Lebanon, ok, but it’s wrong to dump her on the street.”