Forgotten voices: Migrant workers left scrambling for survival following Beirut explosion

Forgotten voices: Migrant workers left scrambling for survival following Beirut explosion

Lara Hamidi

On the 4th of August 2020, the world was left speechless after a devastating explosion shook the busy port of Beirut’s city centre. The destruction caused by the blast spanned across a 10-kilometre radius and killed at least 200 people injuring a further 5,000 whilst leaving over 300,000 people homeless. Amongst them are those forgotten domestic workers with nowhere to escape and no money to sustain themselves, their situation remains worrying and unknown.


Lebanon houses over 250,000 domestic workers, mainly coming from African and Asian countries working as cleaners and nannies. The situation of these workers began to deteriorate drastically as coronavirus began to affect Lebanon, making employment for these workers much more complicated than it was. Alongside the virus, Lebanon’s economic crisis hit the population of workers hard as many employers could no longer afford to sustain their workers, kicking many of these women on the streets. Lebanon’s economic situation has left much of the Lebanese population financially struggling, the country had already been in grave disarray before the explosion. It has left thousands of people into the poverty line with daily currency drops ruining businesses and bringing families into a panic. Prices of imported goods rose by 56% with the cost of food rising by 190%, emphasising that if financially stable Lebanese families have been struggling to sustain themselves, how would minimum wage domestic workers even stand a chance of survival. Due to this, before the explosion, much of the domestic workers were found helpless on the streets of Beirut, already financially struggling.

Masses of domestic workers that had not been laid off during the economic crisis had been left homeless since the blast shook the country, most of these workers lost their homes, employers and jobs to the rubble

Making matters worse, masses of domestic workers that had not been laid off during the economic crisis had been left homeless since the blast shook the country, most of these workers lost their homes, employers and jobs to the rubble.


The Kafala system


The conditions that these workers are exposed to is incredibly distressing, being treated as inferior to their employers and the children they look after. The migrant workers in Lebanon are trapped by the inhumane migrant sponsorship programme, the Kafala system, this system has often been compared to a system of modern-day slavery. This kafala system, found in most countries around the Middle East, legally binds the legal status of the domestic worker to their employer, thus they are excluded from the labour laws in Lebanon, instead governed by the sponsorship programme. The migrant workers are excluded from Lebanese labour laws such as minimum wage, overtime pay, and social security. This exclusion violates the countries obligation under article 7 of the International Covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. The article ensures that all workers should have access to equal conditions of work without discrimination. This system is ultimately an abusive way of governing over the migrants as the employer is in complete control of the workers they sponsor; the worker is unable to change or leave jobs without the permission of their current employer. This means that the living situation of the domestic workers is completely in the mercy of the employer, allowing the employers to treat their workers in any exploitative manner they choose.


Domestic workers on a daily are exposed to abusive living conditions in which, employers violently and physiologically abuse, reduce salaries and sexually harass as they wish with no legal repercussion. With extreme working hours, lack of break days and no freedom of movement and communication they are overworked to the point breaking, their basic job rights and need for rest is completely disregarded. For them, in the houses, all hours are working hours. Ultimately all of these abuses take place with ease due to the Kafala system. If the workers decide to escape home or speaks against these conditions, they risk losing their residency and either be imprisoned or deported, so instead most choose to suffer silently. If they do choose to escape they often get threats from their previous employers blackmailing them into returning back to their place of work. One Nigerian worker was blackmailed into returning back to her place of employment or the police would come and arrest her.


It is an extremely distressing situation in which the domestic workers, mostly women, are trapped with no voice and no way to escape the vicious system that hides behind the kafala system. These workers are further trapped by the system as the exploitative working conditions include passport confiscation, meaning that in an event of an emergency, workers cannot leave their employer, they are imprisoned by the system.




What now?


A group of 30 domestic workers staged a sit-in protest outside of the Kenyan consulate in Beirut where all had lost their homes and subsequently their jobs to the explosion. The women chanted repeatedly, “We want to go home, we want to go home”. Unfortunately, similar to most of the domestic workers in Lebanon today, these jobless women don’t have the finances to afford flight tickets back to their home countries, with no help from their host government and their home governments they are stranded. Some workers were even told that if they wanted to make money to get back home they needed to resort to prostitution.


With injuries due to the explosion, unhealthy working conditions, homelessness and COVID-19, domestic workers situations are in urgent need of recognition. Although legally employers are required to ensure they have health care insurance for the workers they employ, most domestic workers find that their employers had not prepared any form of medical security for them. Additional to this, they are often forgotten as they are isolated from the rest of the population, lack security from the Lebanese labour laws and highly dependent on their employers. The lack of medical security is inhumane especially during COVID-19 and the blast where even if urgent have no access to health care. Making matters worse many who are not on the streets are living ‘safe houses’ with up to 20 – 30 workers in one room, exposing them to quick virus infections and other mentally affecting conditions. The women residing in such safe houses get constant threats to their safety due to attempts of physical and sexual assaults


After years of working for the same household, some employers are throwing their domestic workers on the street with complete disregard to their humanity, as a result of the inability to pay their wages. Some even just dropped their workers at their country’s consulates. Many women were forced to sleep on the street pavements for months waiting for their consulates to help them, with no food, safety or water to keep them going.


Since the explosion there has been a rise is workers on the streets in need of urgent assistance. They are not receiving the necessary aid they need as the country is in economic and social turmoil. Domestic workers from countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria and Kenya are all asking for shelter, food and medical assistance. Even if some workers had not been laid off before the explosion due to the economic turmoil, the blast destroyed dozens of homes that workers did not even know if they had a home to return to. For many workers, they have no way of getting home.


Returning home

Most Ethiopian workers are stuck as the government has refused to evacuate its citizens from Lebanon. There is no work for them, there haven't been places of employment for an extremely long time now, their time in Lebanon is over they must find a way to get back home. Desperately scrambling to get back home, they find themselves stuck as much of their identity documents belongings and money had all been destroyed by the blast.

Desperately scrambling to get back home, Ethiopians find themselves stuck as much of their identity documents belongings and money had all been destroyed by the blast.

If the governments of both countries do not respond to the plight of these workers, they will soon go down silently with the collapsing city of Beirut. The Kenyan, Ethiopian and other governments need to pressure Lebanese labour and foreign ministries to grant security to all those domestic workers until they find a way of getting back home. For these workers, this blast was just the last breaking obstacle in the way of their attempt to get back home from a country they no longer belong in, the domestic workers are struggling to find even a glimmer of hope.


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