Migrant workers hit hard by the dollar crisis in Lebanon

Many foreign workers are already packing their bags.

Because of the financial crisis in Lebanon, some migrant workers are leaving the country. Photo A.-M.H.

Outside of the bustling money exchange offices, discussion is flowing. It is early December in Burj Hammoud, and migrant workers are reluctant to convert their salaries into dollars. The advertized conversion rate is 2,040 Lebanese pounds to one dollar. It's much more than they expected. Some of them prefer to wait. Others try their luck at the exchange office next door, looking for a few more dollars. But they finally have to accept the fact: this month, their salary, paid in Lebanese pounds based on the official exchange rate of 1,507.5, will fall even further in value: they will have to send less money to their families. It is a situation that they cannot endure for too long. Already, the most helpless are packing their bags and want to go back to their homes. They have already lost their jobs due to the economic situation, or they work in jobs that have been affected by the crisis. They bought a one way ticket. The planes for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Ethiopia and Egypt are full, which is unusual for this time of year.

Angel, a Cameroonian housekeeper, is among those leaving. Unemployed, she does not see the need to linger in Lebanon, where everything is extremely expensive. While waiting for D-Day, she buys foreign currencies from her compatriots. "At this rate, all female Cameroonian workers will soon go back home”, she complains. On the other hand, Alam is still hesitant. An Ethiopian domestic worker she been under contract with the same employers for four years, and she wants to give herself some time. Since the depreciation of the national currency, she is being paid in Lebanese pounds. "I can no longer send my family the $ 150 I used to transfer regularly. I still have not sent anything this month”, she says angrily. But at the same time, the young woman refuses to confront her boss, whom she considers her second mother. "I know that times are hard in Lebanon”, she says. According to the president of the National Federation of Worker and Employee Trade Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL), Castro Abdullah, some 253,000 Asian and African women are working officially in Lebanon as domestic workers. But, according to unofficial estimates, if migrant women who are in some way undocumented are included in the numbers, then more than 280,000 domestic workers are employed in the country of the Cedar.

Layoffs, wage cuts...

As they walk out of a foreign exchange bureau, some Filipinos express their frustration at the "difficulty of finding dollars". "We work in the restaurant sector and are paid in the national currency”, says one of them, she has been working in Lebanon for 18 years. "Converting money into dollars in order to send [money] to our families has become too expensive,” she says. “And even the prices displayed in the stores - in Lebanese pounds - have become excessive. If this situation persists, how are we going to survive?”, she asks. Equally worried, three Bangladeshi municipal workers reveal that in nine years of working in Lebanon, they have never experienced such a difficult situation. "I used to earn the equivalent of 350 dollars in Lebanese pounds. But today my salary is worth nothing”, one says. "I will not last too long.”

"May God help them, and help us!”, says the Lebanese manager of an online money transfer company. "With the exchange rate that is unfavorable to them, after paying their rent, foreign workers can no longer afford to buy food because prices are soaring. Not to mention that some are losing their jobs altogether, especially in the sectors that have been most affected by the crisis. Soon, they will all leave, because they are no longer being able to survive, or able to support their families back home”, he says. In the adjacent Asian products grocery store, the owner Lala, a Filipino national, is working to modify the price tags. "I have no choice but to increase my prices because I import my goods”, she says with regret. She also points out that foreign workers are buying only what they need to survive, if they have not already decided to leave the country altogether. “Personally, I wonder if my company will survive this crisis, if I will be able transfer the money needed to buy my merchandise”, she murmurs.

As if to confirm her claims, the online money transfer agency OMT reports a year-on-year "decline of almost 20% in currency transfers" to the migrant workers’ main countries of origin. "This drop could be due to the decline in the renewals of work permits”, notes Joyce Muawad, the company’s communications officer. While banks have imposed severe restrictions on outgoing money transfers, "the agency that deals with the global company Western Union is allowing foreign transfers of up to $ 7,500”, says Muawad who states that these transfers are "subject to international conditions".

A one-way ticket

If it is still too early to talk about mass departures, in the offices of an international travel agency that asked to remain anonymous, there has been a significant increase in the number of Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and Egyptians leaving the country. "Workers are buying a one-way ticket. They want to leave because the factories are either closing down or working at low-yield, because the restaurant and hotel sectors are deserted, because they have been laid off, have suffered a cut in their salary, or are disadvantaged by the exchange rate", says Rana, an employee at the agency. "As an indication, during the month of November, 600 Bangladeshis, 100 Sri Lankans and 95 Indians bought a return ticket to their country through the agency. In normal times, only 300 Bangladeshis, 15 Sri Lankan and 30 Indians leave on a monthly basis”, said the young woman.

It is in this context that a representative of the NGO Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), Zeina Ammar, expresses her fears. "The crisis is deep and is affecting both foreign workers and employers", she says. As a result, there is uncertainty as to what measures to take, and what advice to give. On top of all this, she fears that "some employers will use the crisis as a reason to sack their migrant workers or multiply the abuses against them. We have not yet grasped the magnitude of the problem, and we are holding more meetings about the issue with migrant workers", she says.

As difficult as it is, the current situation points at a labor crisis that promises to worsen. This fuels the worries of Castro Abdullah: "In just two months, we have been witnessing a decrease of circulation of the dollar on the Lebanese market, as well as a depreciation of the Lebanese pound. And already, migrant workers are having trouble recharging their smart phone or acquiring enough dollars to transfer to their families", he says. "Their contracts are nonetheless in dollars", said the union leader. "At present, some are still being paid in Lebanese pounds and are losing in the exchange rate, others are not getting paid at all, especially the employees of cleaning companies. They are just being given food", he says angrily. It is no wonder that some workers prefer to leave: "Egyptian nationals working at gas stations, Bangladeshis and Ethiopians without legal status, all of whose embassies are negotiating their departures with the General Security [are seeking to leave]", says FENASOL’s president.

All this shows how vulnerable foreign workers are in this time of crisis. Given the general lack of supervision over the foreign workforce, it is often left to its own devices and as a result, many workers are sinking into insecurity and instability. The International Labor Organization is currently asking calling for employers to respect their commitments, while recognizing that they are also affected by the crisis. "The shortage of dollars and the deterioration of the unofficial exchange rate pose a real threat to the ability of migrants to meet their commitments in their countries", said Zeina Mezher, spokesperson for the ILO Regional Office in Lebanon, who mentions "the risk of exploiting migrant workers who may be victims of debt bondage, forced labor and even human trafficking ". As a result of all this, there is a clear need for employers "to pay the wages of their foreign workers on time, in accordance with the agreement between the two parties".

Outside of the bustling money exchange offices, discussion is flowing. It is early December in Burj Hammoud, and migrant workers are reluctant to convert their salaries into dollars. The advertized conversion rate is 2,040 Lebanese pounds to one dollar. It's much more than they expected. Some of them prefer to wait. Others try their luck at the exchange office next door, looking for a few...

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