Lebanon’s financial crisis has halved migrants’ wages, pushing them to leave

The difficulties of the country’s banking system and the lack of dollars have forced people to use the local currency. This, in turn, has devalued wages and income. The "kafala" system, a form of "modern slavery", has made things worse for workers. Many want to go home.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Economic migrants face increasing economic hardships in Lebanon today, as the country tries to cope with an economic and political crisis that has almost overwhelmed it in the past few months.

One of the migrants is Jasmin Bighoun, 32, a domestic worker from Bangladesh. For her, “There are no more dollars and everything is more expensive. It's not the same as before, life is hard.”

Speaking to AFP, she explained that she used to send up to US0 to her family at home; today she can send less than 150.

“My 'madame' says she has no more dollars... I can't do anything," she noted, adding that if necessary, she and her husband will pack up and return to Bangladesh.

Burdened by a rising debt, Lebanon has been going through the worst financial crisis since the civil war of 1975-1990, with grassroots protests and repeated appeals from the Maronite Church.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have been without wages or have seen their wages drop.

“I used to earn 400 dollars ... but today I get my salary in Lebanese pounds," said Mary. "I can't send money to Ethiopia anymore.”

Lebanese activists and international human rights NGOs have repeatedly called for the abolition of the "kafala" or sponsorship system that exists in many parts of the Middle East and represents a modern form of slavery.

In Lebanon as elsewhere, the system traps foreign workers, binding them to their sponsors and depriving them of fundamental rights.

Since 17 October, Lebanon has been shaken by massive street protests against corruption and bad governance.

The country is home to about 250,00 economic migrants, mostly domestic workers from Ethiopia, Sudan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Some are underage and live in appalling conditions, a situation condemned by activist groups and the governments of the countries of origin.

Migrants are among the most affected by the collapse of the local currency, the Lebanese pound, especially restrictions on deposits and banking transactions, due to the lack of dollars which has been the currency of reference currency for locals and foreigners alike for a long time.

Those workers who get their wages (and not all do) have seen their purchasing power reduced as they are now paid in Lebanese pounds

For immigrants the situation is even more complicated because in order to send money home they have to convert pounds into dollars, losing up to 30 per cent of the value.

In short, the lack of liquidity has drastically reduced access to US dollars and triggered a severe crisis for tens of thousands of migrant workers.

For Mary, the de-facto devaluation shaved off at least a third of her salary. But she insisted her employees were not to blame. The problem, she said, "is from the state".

Before Lebanon's economic meltdown, most migrant workers earned the equivalent of 150 to 400 dollars a month. Now many are thinking of going home and are starting to line up at their embassies and consulates.

Last December, more than a thousand Filipinos, mostly female domestic workers, some with children in tow, flocked to their embassy and signed up for a free repatriation flight

“Time is precious,” said Divine, a 38-year-old Filipina, in Lebanon for 15 years. “All the sacrifices I have made and patience – I deserve my money.”