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Migrant workers leave en masse, changing life for Lebanese

Jobs like gas station attendant have been largely held by migrant workers in Lebanon. Now many of them are leaving amid the economic crisis. Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE
Jobs like gas station attendant have been largely held by migrant workers in Lebanon. Now many of them are leaving amid the economic crisis. Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 29 (UPI) -- Lebanon, which has been relying heavily on migrant workers in recent decades, is no longer an attractive destination for them.

With the Lebanese pound losing 90% of its value and U.S. dollars scarce, migrant workers have departed in large numbers, leaving behind once well-off employers who are struggling to make ends meet.

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The comfortable lifestyle enjoyed after the 1975-90 civil war came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the country's worst economic crisis in October 2019. The number of migrant workers -- who handled low-skilled jobs that Lebanese never accepted, such as porters, concierges, house cleaners and gas pump operators -- has been declining rapidly.

According to Information International, a Beirut-based research and consultancy firm, the Lebanese General Security issued 9,780 work permits in 2020 compared to 57,957 the previous year, a decrease of 83 percent. The number of workers from Ghana dropped by 93.9%, the Philippines by 86.3%, Bangladesh by 85.3% and Egypt by 79.2 %.

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The cause is clear: Lebanese who have lost their jobs and savings at the banks and employers who were forced to close their businesses are no longer able to pay their migrant workers in hard currency with the depreciation of the Lebanese pound. The alarming spread of COVID-19 in the country and hyperinflation added to the plight.

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Late last year, the evacuation of migrant workers accelerated, with Ethiopia and Sri Lanka sending planes to repatriate their national workers, mostly housekeepers, many of whom had been abandoned by their employers.

Betelhem Adane, a 35-year-old Ethiopian domestic worker, was not among them. She first came to Lebanon 13 years ago to work in a private household. She soon moved to a travel agency as a cleaner, earning $300 per month.

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Not anymore. Her current employer cannot afford to pay her more than 600,000 Lebanese pounds per month ($50 at the current black market rate of 12,000 LL for one U.S. dollar), having been also greatly affected by the economic deterioration.

With that salary barely covering her essential needs, Adane had to abandon the small room she used to rent for $150 and started to sleep at the office where she works in Beirut's main Hamra Street.

"I am stuck...I cannot stay here, but also I cannot leave," Adane told UPI, explaining that she was "too afraid" to go back to her home country, where the parents of one of her Ethiopian friends killed in a car accident in Lebanon years ago blame her for the death.

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Her sister, who worked for four years in Lebanon, had no option but to leave, although her employer, a bank worker, still owes her $1,500 in salary.

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Figures compiled by the International Labor Organization for 2020 showed 152,289 regular migrant workers were still working in Lebanon, many coming from some of the world's most impoverished countries. Domestic workers, mainly women from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ghana and Kenya, topped the list with 119,081.

Workers from Bangladesh were estimated at 19,541and Egyptians at 9,671, mostly men performing jobs as porters, cleaners, concierges and gas station attendants.

ILO's figures do not include the number of illegal workers, estimated by unconfirmed reports to be around 80,000.

Zeina Mezher, ILO's Focal Person on Labor Migration, said the migrant workers are forced to leave Lebanon because "they have little incentive to stay" with the economic conditions getting worse by the day, dollars in short supply and weakness of the system to protect them.

"The Lebanese are losing their jobs and businesses, and this is affecting migrant workers, who could no longer send money to their families in their home countries," Mezher told UPI.

She voiced concern for those who are still in the country, pushed into irregularity and "cannot meet their basic needs or pay penalties to be able to leave or regularize their status."

The crisis has accentuated the ordeal of the migrant workers, especially housekeepers who were suffering from abuses -- non-payment of wages, forced confinement, excessive working hours with no rest days or breaks -- documented by several local and international organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

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Jeanette Zogheib, who established an agency to recruit domestic workers 10 years ago, had to close her business.

"I used to bring some 150 female domestic workers from Ethiopia every year...But not a single one since 2019," Zogheib told UPI, explaining that only employers "who still have cash U.S. dollars" can afford to pay $3,000 in recruitment fees for the agency and $150 to $300 per month for the foreign housekeeper.

Although she needs an income, she did not consider recruiting Lebanese women for the job: "I haven't tried that option."

Deep-rooted cultural and social stigmas surround domestic work. But Layal Fneich and three of her jobless friends seized the opportunity and decided last year to fill the gap, offering their cleaning services on Facebook at a reasonable rate of 10,000 Lebanese pounds (less than 1 U.S. dollar) per hour.

"At first, we were highly encouraged and had many clients," Fneich, a 26-year-old divorcee, with a daughter, from southern Lebanon, told UPI.

The COVID-19 spread and the worsening economic crisis have left her today with barely one client requesting her services every two weeks.

The country's financial crisis turned out to be a blessing in disguise for some, an opportunity to "change the mentality" and reform the Lebanese labor market.

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Industrial firms have recently advertised for 200 new jobs, benefiting from a sharp decrease in imports to increase and diversify production and develop new products for the local and international markets.

Ziad Bekdache, vice president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists board and CEO of Oriental Paper Products, called on Lebanese workers to seize the opportunity and "not to turn down any available job."

"We are in a dire situation...It is time for the Lebanese workers to accept any job instead of staying home," Bekdache told UPI. "We are the only sector asking for new workers, while most manufacturing companies are trying to accommodate the present workforce as much as they can with increases on their salaries and sometimes food assistance."

During the pandemic, three new plants have been established to make face masks, and intensive-care ventilators were also manufactured.

From among 6,000 industrial plants in the country, some 3,500-4,000 are producing international-standard products that are being exported to the Arab countries, Europe, Africa and the United States.

To maintain such long-term investments, Bekdache said, "We largely prefer Lebanese workers."

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