Beirut, Lebanon – Dozens of Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon have found shelter after they were abandoned by their employers and many spent days outside the Ethiopian consulate without being allowed entry.
Videos widely circulated on Twitter on Wednesday showed dozens of women occupying the curb outside the building southeast of Beirut, sitting beside suitcases of their belongings.
Lebanon’s worst-ever economic crisis has hit thousands of Lebanese hard, with some no longer able to afford to pay their live-in helpers. Many of these workers have been deposited outside the consulate by their employers, or have been kicked out and made their own way there, sleeping near the entrance of the consulate or in a nearby park.
Consul staff could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts. Late on Wednesday night, Labour Minister Lamia Yammine announced the women would be put up in a hotel. After spending a night there, they were tested for COVID-19 and transferred to a shelter run by charity organisation Caritas, an adviser to Yammine told Al Jazeera.
Domestic workers in Lebanon are employed under the notorious kafala system, which binds their legal residence to one employer and does not allow them to amend or end work contracts without permission.
The system, used in a number of middle eastern countries, has facilitated widespread abuse and an employer-employee relationship that has been likened to modern-day slavery.
The Ministry of Labour said it would conduct an investigation and prosecute any employers found to have committed violations.
But the issue is showing no sign of resolution. Throughout Thursday, more women were dropped off outside the consulate, with more than a dozen sitting on the sidewalk by noon.
“[My employer] put me here and left,” one Ethiopian worker told local news channel LBCI. “They didn’t give me money for a month. I told them I want to travel but they told me there’s no money for the ticket. They said if you want, work for free. If you don’t, leave to wherever you want. In the end, they brought me here and left me.”
“They have been dumped here like trash,” another woman said, gesturing towards the women lining the sidewalk.
A number of states including Ethiopia and the Philippines have organised repatriations of migrant workers whose jobs in Lebanon have become untenable due to the local currency’s depreciation by some 60 percent against the US dollar since last summer.
Most of these workers send remittances home in US dollars, but are being paid in local currency and have therefore lost most of the value of their earnings.
Repatriation efforts have been made more difficult by a nationwide lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic that has seen the only civilian airport closed, though the labour ministry says it has reached out to embassies and the country’s main security agency to facilitate repatriations.
More than 7,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers have applied for repatriation, while the Philippines and Ethiopian embassies have each repatriated hundreds, respectively.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group, has called for states to create mechanisms whereby hastily repatriated migrant workers can seek redress for labour and human rights violations, and also gain back salaries and compensation that they were not given.
Diala Haidar, Lebanon campaigner for Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera the labour ministry’s decision to provide shelter for the migrants was “positive” but it should “ensure these workers get their unpaid salaries and that employers are held accountable for what they did”.
An estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers reside in Lebanon, though accurate figures are hard to come by given many work without proper documentation.