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Domestic workers from Bangladesh in Beirut, April 12, 2020. Bad planning, corruption and the sudden shock of a pandemic have caused the Lebanese currency to crash and consumer prices to jump. Image Credit: NYT

Beirut: Hundreds of garbage collectors in Lebanon, mostly South Asians and some Lebanese as well, went on strike earlier this month and blocked the entrance to a waste collection company’s office, demanding their salaries in US dollars.

Following two weeks of fruitless negotiations to get the company management to clear unpaid salaries in US dollars or Lebanese pounds (LBP) — equivalent to the market exchange rate of LBP3,200, and not LBP1,500 — as stipulated in the labour contracts, hundreds of workers (250 Bangladeshis, 150 Indians and many Lebanese) held a sit-in demonstration and blocked the entrance to the office premises on Al Matn Express Highway.

The situation turned ugly when the protesting labourers refused to clear the company’s entrance and give way to the garbage-collection trucks, triggering clashes that required the intervention of the anti-riot police from the Lebanese Internal Security Force.

Ailing economy

The protest-demonstration brought to light the plight of expatriate workers in general, and South Asians in particular, who have been suffering a lot in view of Lebanon’s ailing economy and the lockdown, following the coronavirus pandemic.

Due to Lebanon’s worsening economic situation, capital-control measures followed by the banks, limitation on cash withdrawals, lack of US dollar and frequent fluctuations in its market value, particularly since the October 17 revolution started, South Asian workers have been facing an unprecedented financial crisis.

According to a Labour Ministry official, there have been thousands of instances of South Asians getting sacked, having their salaries slashed or not being paid their salaries in US dollars.

A Bangladeshi worker, Noureddine, who was collecting garbage in Mar Elias, told Gulf News: “No salary in US dollars since February ... it’s getting difficult to survive. Earlier, my salary was worth 600,000 Lebanese pounds, but now it’s garbage ... its 1.6 million Lebanese pounds as the value of the US dollar has tripled, though my company still pays me in Lebanese pounds at the rate of 1,500 pounds to a dollar. That is unfair!”.

Rising unemployment

Following up on the South Asian blue-collar work force’s financial woes and the inability of the labourers to return home in view of the Covid-19 lockdown, Gulf News got in touch with diplomatic missions representing those countries’ citizens in Lebanon.

First Secretary at the Bangladeshi Embassy, Abdullah Al Mamun, said there are nearly 150,000 Bangladeshis currently in Lebanon. Nearly 20,000 undocumented persons are expected to leave the country due to issues such as the fluctuating value of the US dollar and rising unemployment since the coronavirus pandemic broke out. “Presently, the biggest problem for Bangladeshis seeking repatriation is the dollar issue and not unemployment. We had already registered 7,674 repatriation requests for undocumented persons wanting to leave, but we stopped due to COVID-19 ... Once this situation is over, we expect a similar number to want to leave. As for documented [legal] workers, there’re many sponsors communicating with us, wanting to fly back to Bangladesh once air travel resumes ... around 5,000 persons,” he told Gulf News.

As for last week’s sit-in demonstration by irate garbage cleaners, Al Mamun said teams from the embassy were communicating with the company’s management and collaborating with the Labour Ministry that was investigating the matter.

When asked how many calls the embassy had been receiving on a daily basis from troubled Bangladeshis who had not been paid their salaries in US dollars, Al Mamun replied: “Too many ... [its easier for me to tell you] how many aren’t complaining!”

Request for repatriation flight

P. Pattabhi, Second Secretary, Consular and Community Welfare, at the Indian Embassy, said 8,000 community members had been facing problems due to the revolution and the coronavirus pandemic. “They’re unable to get dollars ... some are being paid at the official rate, some are getting only half their salaries, while many are being laid off,” he informed.

Pattabhi revealed that the Indian Embassy in Beirut had sent an official request to the Indian Government to send an evacuation flight like the ones that had been sent to other countries around the world.

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A Bangladeshi worker in Beirut who works for waste management company RAMCO. Image Credit: Reuters

“We are waiting for our government’s response. Indians here are mostly legal workers, but cannot afford high-priced tickets amid this outbreak. The price factor is preventing many of them from returning. Once things are back to normal, we expect many workers to return because right now, they can neither afford a ticket nor do they want to be quarantined [upon arrival] in India,” he commented. T. Luxmidharan, Sri Lankan Embassy’s Second Secretary, Labour, said there are plans to evacuate nearly 700 workers once airports are open. “We have around 25,000 labourers here. Most of them are suffering without food and money since they lost their jobs or have suffered salary cuts. Life has become unaffordable for them and the country’s economic situation and the dollar issue have made survival even more difficult for them. For now, the plan is to evacuate between 600 to 700 workers, especially those in extremely difficult conditions,” Luxmidharan told Gulf News.

Consular help

As Lebanon eased down on curfews and lockdown measures over the pandemic, according to Luxmidharan, several Sri Lankans still preferred to stay in Lebanon as many of them had managed to be back at work.

In a media statement, the Lebanese General Security (the authority responsible for passports, visas and residencies), said on May 20 that it would start organising evacuation trips to repatriate foreign labourers wanting to return to their countries, in coordination between embassies and the pertinent departments. The authority further called on workers wishing to return home to head to their embassy/consulate and sign up for repatriation.

During Israel’s war with Lebanon and Hezbollah in 2006, India had brought back home around 2,300 people from Lebanon, including some Sri Lankan and Nepalese nationals, who were caught in the conflict.
Bassam Za’Za is a freelance writer based in Beirut.