This article was originally published in June 2020. We are republishing it now because of the insights it offers into the circumstances of foreign workers in Lebanon during crises, particularly COVID-19. (Editor)
A stigma has followed the workers residing in two buildings in Beirut’s Ras Al Nabaa district ever since the Ministry of Health announced, on 24 May 2020, that more than 80 Bengalis in one of them tested COVID-19 positive. As soon as the cases were announced, several family associations in the area demanded that all buildings housing foreign workers be cleared. The workers’ plight does not end there, as they also face the risk of termination and deportation as soon as the airport opens. Additionally, the discriminatory measures that migrant workers face amidst the pandemic in Lebanon may deter many from talking about their health status for fear of further discrimination if they are found to be infected.
Those denouncing the workers’ presence in the Ras Al Nabaa buildings cite COVID-19 as a reason to clear the buildings based on the fear of possible infection. They are unconvinced by the measures that the Ministry of Health has taken to prevent COVID-19 from spreading throughout neighborhoods. These measures include isolating the infected. Hence, quarantine was enforced on the two aforementioned buildings.
The first is the three-story building inhabited by Bengali workers, where 81 cases emerged. These workers were kept in the building until they recovered as they appeared to be asymptomatic. Nine other workers from a building in the Basta district were also transferred to this building after they too were confirmed infected. The security measures taken consisted of barring all entry and exit and deploying steel barricades and security forces personnel, who were present throughout the quarantine period. The workers who tested negative were transported to two hotels in Beirut to be quarantined for more than two weeks.
The second is a five-story building housing Syrian workers and their families. They were quarantined and given PCR tests, which came back negative. Entry and exit were again barred as there was mixing between the two buildings’ residents, and the Ministry of Health conducted testing in the neighboring buildings on June 2.
Family Associations Demand the Workers’ Eviction
Since the aforementioned cases were announced, there has been a flood of demands from some Beirut family associations for the local authorities to remove the infected. For example, the Beirut Families Union, Abna Beirut League (Rabta), and the Safinat al Khayr Association all demanded that the Bengali workers’ building be permanently cleared and condemned.
Some of these associations also raised concerns about other buildings housing foreign workers, demanding that they be cleared on the pretext that the workers could be infected and lack legal residency permits. In this vein, the Mazraa Locals’ Social Development League asked Minister of Health Hamad Hasan to “take the necessary measures needed to inspect buildings housing large numbers of people of different nationalities”. The statement went even further, deeming these people “likely to be infected with COVID-19”. The statement named three other buildings housing foreign workers and called upon the security agencies to “take the measures needed to clear these buildings of their residents and verify the legality of their residence there”.
In an interview with the Legal Agenda, Abd al-Wadud al-Nasuli, president of the Social League of Ras Al Nabaa Locals, justified the locals’ demands for the Beirut Municipality to clear the building on the basis that the overcrowding of the Bengali workers “causes a constant ruckus for the neighbors” and “foul odors”. He is unconvinced by the Ministry of Health’s measures, deeming that the large wave of infections in the building warrants transporting the infected away from other residents to prevent further spread.
The concerns of the area’s residents have been fueled by MP Rola Tabsh. She took the discussion in a political direction, saying in a June 6 statement that “the Ras Al Nabaa district is still paying the price of the malicious policy of the government, particularly the Ministry of Health”. She continued, “The minister of health seems to have decided not to care, adopting discrimination among areas”. She asked, “Is Ras Al Nabaa and all of Beirut beyond Lebanese sovereignty? Or is he punishing it because it is outside the fold of his political base?”
The Ministry of Health Responds to the Concerns
The Legal Agenda spoke to Dr. Edmond Abboud, advisor to the minister of health, who responded to the resident’s concerns. He says that “the virus is not transmitted through air, only direct mixing with the infected person, so there is no risk to the surroundings of the residential buildings in Ras Al Nabaa”. He adds, “The reaction we witnessed was due to panic, but the measures taken by the ministry were serious, and it’s illogical to think that what we did endangers residents’ health”. As he puts it, “If there were any danger, the ministry would have sought to change the place of quarantine from the very beginning”.
Abboud speaks about the course that the Ministry of Health took, explaining that the cases were detected when one of the Bengali workers went to the Greek Catholic Hospital with COVID-19 symptoms. A PCR test confirmed that he was infected. The hospital informed the Ministry of Health, which directed the Department of Epidemiological Surveillance to take action and trace the patient’s contacts. He says that tests given to the workers residing in the building revealed that 80 others, all Bengali, were infected. The ministry decided to transport those whose tests came back negative to two hotels paid for by UN institutions. Explaining why the infected were merely quarantined inside the building instead of transported elsewhere, Abboud says, “All the infected were in good health and asymptomatic. Approximately three weeks later, new tests showed that all cases had recovered, so the workers were transferred from hotel quarantine back to their place of residence in Ras Al Nabaa”.
The Company Intends to Deport the Workers When the Airport Opens
The Legal Agenda met about ten young Bengali men gathered at the foot of the building, while others looked on from balconies, after the road was reopened and all those who tested positive were declared recovered. One of the men says that the building is overcrowded, housing more than 200 people. Inside, rooms have been divided with wooden separators to accommodate the largest possible number.
The workers state that Operator, the company for which they work, rents the building. One mentions that the company did not pay their wages while they were in quarantine, and in the recent period, they have received their salaries in Lebanese lira based on the official exchange rate of 1,500 lire to the dollar. The market exchange rate, on the other hand, is climbing significantly, occasionally exceeding 5,000 lire to the dollar (it topped 8,700 during work on this publication).
In an interview with the Legal Agenda, Bernard Saghbini, Operator’s director, states that the company intends to reduce its services by 60% because it cannot confront the economic crisis and continue paying employees’ wages. He attributes the nonpayment of salaries to the economic crisis and the fact that some companies to which Operator supplies employees have terminated, or said that they will not renew, their contracts. Hence, many Operator employees are now not working. He explains that “during the workers’ quarantine, the company paid part of the hotel cost and supplied meals to the workers”. “We paid all the money we have and can no longer pay salaries”, he adds.
Saghbini also mentions that the company “no longer has any choice” but to deport the foreign workers once the airport opens. He says that more than 150 workers have expressed a desire to return to their countries. Regarding whether the company will take into consideration the other workers’ desire to stay in Lebanon, he says, “That depends on the companies with which we contract. If those companies decide to keep the workers we supply, we won’t deport them, but otherwise the company cannot keep them”. Regarding the demands to clear the building, he sees no reason to do so, mentioning that “the company won’t be able to rent a new building for the workers, and it’s on the verge of sending a large portion of them abroad”.
Saghbini says that “the company met with the Ministry of Labor and explained why it intends to reduce its employees and deport the foreigners among them”. He deems that the company “faces a force majeure that has necessitated this course” while denying that it has reached the point of bankruptcy.
The Workers Complain About Not Receiving Medical Reports
The Bengali workers outside the building complained of not receiving their medical reports. In a phone call with Saghbini for clarification, he said that the company received the medical reports and informed the workers of their results verbally, and he promised to give the reports to the workers very soon.
In the neighboring building, where the Syrian workers who were also quarantined live, one resident says that the building houses approximately 170 people, including 28 families. He says that they are facing pressure to evict them without naming those applying it: “Several actors object to our presence here, including [political] party actors and other residents”. He adds, “All the people in the building rent their apartments themselves [rather than via a company] and are day workers, so they cannot be evicted against their will”. He goes on to speak about the difficulty of finding alternative housing under these circumstances: “I work as an on-demand handyman. So, there is no fixed work, and there has been practically no work for months. Nobody calls to ask for maintenance anymore”.
Difficult Living Conditions: Insufficient Ventilation and Basic Necessities
The living conditions of the workers in these buildings are an example of the dangers facing tens if not hundreds of thousands of people living in underprivileged neighborhoods and overcrowded buildings. Doctors Without Borders inspected the Bengali workers’ building and another building in Basta as part of its intervention to raise awareness and provide medical exams to workers. In an interview with the Legal Agenda, Caline Rehayem, the organization’s deputy medical coordinator, describes the conditions of the workers living in the Ras Al Nabaa building and in Basta as “poor” in terms of “ventilation, overcrowding, and other basic necessities”. She also mentions “the difficulty of maintaining hygiene given the increasing number of residents in each apartment” and that the infected cannot be separated from the other residents because rooms and bathrooms are shared.
From another angle, and based on its interviews with the workers, a statement issued by the organization confirms what some residents told the Legal Agenda, namely that many “have not learned the results of the diagnostics that they underwent”. The statement emphasized “every person’s right to access their medical data and obtain medical care irrespective of their social status”.
Repercussions of the Pandemic on Migrant Workers
Figures from the National Operations Room indicate that 89 Bengalis in Lebanon have been confirmed infected with COVID-19. The same figures show that there have been 172 cases among foreigners in Lebanon, which constitutes 12% of all cases (as of mid-June 2020).
Facing these figures, we must raise the issue of the situation of foreign workers in Lebanon amidst the pandemic. Zeina Mezher, the national coordinator of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Work in Freedom programme, emphasizes to the Legal Agenda the close link between the precarity of migrant labor groups and the Kafala [Sponsorship] system under all circumstances. This system obstructs workers’ access to their rights, which are even more endangered during crises.
Mezher mentions that, “Cleaners in companies are subject to the Lebanese Labor Code, unlike domestic work, which is exempt from it”. Hence, “The company employing the migrant workers has a responsibility to provide for their needs in terms of adequate housing or a housing allowance and health insurance and not to take any measures against them, such as deducting or not paying their salaries or dismissing them, in the case of quarantine”.
Mezher also warns that migrant workers who catch COVID-19 face two kinds of discrimination: workplace discrimination, which could result in loss of employment, and potential social discrimination in their milieu. Both kinds have disastrous effects on the workers’ conditions.
From the employment perspective, Mezher says that “the workers could be dismissed just for catching COVID-19 even after they recover. This kind of practice, such as depriving workers of their income or dismissing them, moves them into a more vulnerable situation that imposes burdens upon them because of the discrimination against them”. Consequently, they experience “a series of changes that begins with loss of employment and therefore income and then involves living in more crowded places – i.e. a vicious circle that puts their health and public health at greater risk”. She mentions that the ILO previously helped provide advice on amending the Ministry of Labor inspectors’ checklist for occupational health and safety and fundamental rights at work, and questions pertaining to migrant workers and COVID-19 prevention were added.
From a social perspective, as in the case of the Ras Al Nabaa workers facing local demands to expel them from the area because of their infection, Mezher says that “the virus doesn’t discriminate by nationality or social class”. She points out that “Lebanon is bound by the international conventions and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which are against discrimination”. In this regard, she places responsibility on “the shoulders of the authorities, which have a duty to spread an awareness-raising discourse to control personal biases against infected people and to take practical measures to protect against stigma”. She adds, “They are in a vulnerable situation and need embracing, not discrimination”.
Migrant Workers Fear Disclosing Their Health Status
Mezher summarizes some of the pandemic’s repercussions on migrant workers:
What about workers who have been pushed by circumstances into an irregular situation? Mezher responds that “if they catch the virus, they may not feel comfortable seeking healthcare for fear of being arrested and deported”. General Director of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital Dr. Firass Abiad told the Legal Agenda that “the hospital doesn’t refer anyone to General Security if their papers aren’t legal but instead asks for any papers proving their identity so that it can open a file for them”. In response to this statement, Mezher comments that although refraining from arresting anyone in hospital is the right action, the authorities should also announce this policy officially to reassure such workers. She concludes, “We strive and hope for the COVID-19 pandemic to take some of the laws and practices that violate the sanctity of being a free worker with it”.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.
How Did the Ras Al Nabaa Case Evolve?
Months after this incident, the Legal Agenda contacted Bernard Saghbini to inquire about the measures that Operator took concerning the foreign workers. His responses were brief. He said, “Approximately 30% of the foreign workers have returned to their countries or traveled to work in other countries where they can earn salaries in foreign currency. The employment ended by mutual consent and without pressure from the company”. When asked whether the company gave the workers any compensation before they left Lebanon, he merely said, “We gave them what’s due”. Regarding the foreign workers still working for the company, he said, “We’re trying to improve their salaries by presenting compromise solutions”, without clarifying the nature of these solutions. We then visited Ras Al Nabaa and found the building that had housed the workers completely empty. The neighbors told us that the workers were all sent abroad. When we confronted Saghbini with this information and asked where the workers he said were still in Lebanon now live, he refused to provide any details and asked us to stop calling him.