The May 2020 strike by RAMCO’s foreign workers in protest of their mistreatment showed how serious exploitation in Lebanon has become, exploitation that had convinced them they had nothing left to lose. Their salaries had fallen by two thirds because the company had begun paying them in Lebanese lira at the official exchange rate that the central bank imposed on bank-to-bank transactions (approximately one third of the market rate). Hence, their remuneration became so meager that it raised the issue of forced labor (a form of human trafficking) or slave labor. Furthermore, after the quarantine measures began, the company reportedly treated them as day workers, withholding their salaries onfor days in which it did not operate. While the workers demanded to leave Lebanon to escape this situation, the company’s director justified their continued exploitation on the basis that the company’s inability to repatriate them due to the airport closure left it no other choice. From this angle, the RAMCO case seemed like a turning point likely to blow the issue of foreign workers – both those already residing in Lebanon and future recruits – wide open.
This article was originally published in Arabic on 14 May 2020. Several developments, not covered in this article, have taken place since then. (Editor)
On Wednesday 13 May 2020, the campus of the RAMCO garbage collection company was quiet. The day before, its foreign workers staged a sit-in to protest the payment of their wages in Lebanese lira and the allegedly grave violations of their rights and humanity. At the main entrance to the foreign workers’ sleeping quarters and the lot for garbage trucks stand five foreign workers and two of the company’s security guards. When asked about the reason for the strike, they respond that the company is paying wages in Lebanese lira and reportedly violating its workers’ human rights, the latter of which the Lebanese guards say is exaggerated.
On social media, activists posted videos of the turmoil in the company’s courtyard during Tuesday’s sit-in. The videos show riot police, which the company summoned into the building situated on al-Matn Highway, breaking up the sit-in, with dozens of angry, uniformed sanitation workers and riot police hurling cleaning products at each other. RAMCO’s director Walid Bou Saad tells the Legal Agenda, “The company asked the riot police to intervene after the workers insisted on preventing the trucks from leaving, which are obligated to provide a public service and can’t cease doing so”, though some of the workers had begun striking approximately two weeks earlier in protest of economic conditions. The company has been paying foreign workers’ wages in lira since November 2019, when the state stopped paying it in dollars.
The Workers’ Statement: Serious Accusations Against the Company and Security Guards
Hours after the sit-in ended, a statement signed “all RAMCO workers” spread on social media, addressing the accumulation of events that had enraged the workers and demanding that the Bangladeshi embassy intervene to protect them. The statement mentioned mistreatment involving beatings, deprivation of liberty, withholding or delaying salaries, and depriving workers of health coverage. It made serious accusations against the company and its security guards, including that they covered up the suicide of one Bangladeshi worker and imprisoned another suffering from a mental disorder in a basement for three days before security guards attempted to murder him. The Legal Agenda was unable to verify these accusations. The statement also mentioned that workers have been threatened with repatriation should they protest. Castro Abdullah, president of the National Federation of Worker and Employee Trade Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL), tells the Legal Agenda that “Bangladeshi workers who cooperate with the federation on foreign worker issues confirmed all these violations and the things the statement said were done to the RAMCO workers after contacting relatives who work in the company”. He says that the company’s payment of salaries in lira reduces them from US$350 to US$110 (i.e. to one third), in contravention of the employment contract and despite the nature of the work and working hours.
On that Wednesday, following the spread of videos showing an outpouring of anger and the riot police’s repression of the workers, activists staged a protest in front of the company’s offices in the Saroulla building, Hamra. Meanwhile, rights groups carried out a broad campaign condemning the repression of foreign workers with no voice in Lebanon. The protesters argued that RAMCO is a cover for the contractor Jihad al-Arab – whom many in Lebanon describe as “the Republic’s contractor” because of the many projects he is implementing in the country – and chanted, “Thief, thief, Jihad al-Arab is a thief”. The protesters tried to enter the building to reach the company’s offices, but security forces stood between them and the entrance. Hence, they chanted, “The military is standing as a doorman” at the gendarmerie.
Afterward, some workers conveyed messages to the Legal Agenda indicating that, besides the above, they insist that the company calculate their monthly wage on the basis of 26 days each month without deductions should it halt operations or not put them to work for any reason, that it cover the cost of health services for workers, and that it serve them better food. Some of the messages also indicate that many workers are afraid to insist that their wages be paid in dollars after the company repatriated some who refused to accept their salaries in lira.
RAMCO Workers Expose the Absence of Union Activity in Lebanon
In response to the entry of riot police to break up the sit-in, the NGO workers’ union in Lebanon issued a statement condemning their “attack on foreign workers who rose up to demand their rights after running out of patience for RAMCO’s repeated violations, most recently its theft of their wages and insistence on paying them in Lebanese lira at the official exchange rate”. The statement said that the riot police “responded to RAMCO’s call as though they are a private security company operating under its command”. It also called attention to “the absence of labor unions – as though non-Lebanese workers are not workers – and the suspicious silence prevailing in the media”. The statement deemed that, “Such violations occur against all workers in Lebanon – whether citizens or non-citizens – and any stance that prioritizes Lebanese workers over others is one biased towards financial empires”.
FENASOL, in its own condemnation, addressed the dangerous health conditions under which sanitation workers work. They “collect garbage amidst the spread of COVID-19, and they endure the most difficult conditions without any health protection, on top of the effects of the economic crisis”. The statement also emphasized that, “This suffering is experienced not only by the RAMCO workers but also by other workers of companies that employ foreign migrant workers and Lebanese workers”.
RAMCO Denies Violating Human Rights: The Issue Pertains Only to Wages
Bou Saad explains that most foreign workers in the company are Bangladeshi or Indian, earn US$400 per month, and work from 9 to 12 hours a day. He denies the serious accusations against the company, emphasizing that the workers’ demands consist of the payment of their salaries in dollars and, more recently, returning to their countries. He adds, “We have no solutions for the salaries matter as the Lebanese state has stopped paying in dollars, and we can only repatriate those asking to return home once the airport reopens”.
When asked about calculating workers’ wages based on the number of days worked as though they are day workers, Bou Saad explains, “The company reduced operations by 60% for just seven days because the state delayed paying its dues on March 1, but it didn’t touch the workers’ salaries. Then there was a stop for another five days because of the closure of the Bourj Hammoud landfill. The trucks resumed transporting garbage once it reopened”. He adds, “Subsequently, work declined for two weeks because of the general mobilization, which caused garbage production to decrease, and because the general mobilization decision didn’t include garbage collection among its exceptions it put the companies’ trucks at risk of being ticketed”. In this regard, he says the workers “thought that the company doesn’t want to put them to work, especially as it gives workers overtime pay”. According to him, “The salaries of some foreign workers sometimes exceed LL1 million because of overtime hours”. He mentions that the company made deductions only from the salaries of workers who went on strike for more than seven days.
Regarding the reported confinement of a Bangladeshi worker in a basement, Bou Saad denies that the incident constitutes imprisonment. In a quasi-confession, he justifies the incident on the basis that, “The building contains an isolation room that was constructed as a precaution so that a worker who catches any infection could be transferred there until he recovers. It isn’t intended to be a prison”. He says that the worker “had a psychological shock for a family-related reason and was demanding to return to his country, but that’s not possible because of the airport closure. His condition worsened, and he began suffering psychotic episodes that caused his colleagues to beat him. Hence, we took him to hospital, where he underwent tests. He turned out to be suffering from a psychological condition that required him to be put in the isolation room and given the necessary medications”. He adds, “After a time, we took him out of the room and handed him to his colleagues. This worker was among the protesters”. As for the suicide, Bou Saad denies it completely.
Bou Saad does not deny the workers’ right to strike as approximately 60 Bangladeshi workers began striking two weeks ago and the company did not try to deter them. But, “For some reason, they rose up yesterday [March 12] and tried to prevent the trucks from going out to operate, and that’s what prompted us to ask the security forces to intervene”. According to Bou Saad, after the security forces intervened, “The workers targeted some of the company’s trucks, breaking them and trying to burn them, and benzine was thrown at the security forces”, though there is no proof of these claims. He says that, “One worker was arrested for assaulting a member of the security forces, whereas the company has not filed against any of its workers”.
The Bangladeshi Embassy, the Ministry of Labor, and the Workers’ Demands
Bangladeshi Consul Abdullah Al Mamun tells the Legal Agenda that the embassy has followed the RAMCO issue and taken the workers’ demands into consideration. He reports that a brief including the demands and recommendations will be prepared and sent to the company so that potential solutions can be discussed. One solution he proposes is that the company raise the workers’ salary in Lebanese lira.
Acting General Director of the Ministry of Labor Marlene Atallah says that “Ministry of Labor inspectors visited the building, checked the operations, and examined the workers’ demands”. She mentions that, “Tentatively, the ministry’s inspectors concluded that the workers’ protests concern salaries and the problem of the lira’s divergent exchange rates”. She adds, “It was also found that a number of workers are demanding to return to their countries, and that’s been impeded by the airport closure”. She emphasizes that, “The issue is still under investigation, and solutions are being examined”.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.
Months after these events, Bou Saad said the company had repatriated most of its foreign workers in summer 2020. “The workers asked to return to their countries because they weren’t receiving their wages in USD,” he explained. He estimated that 350 Bangladeshi and Indian workers left RAMCO’s employ, while no more than 10 foreign workers remained. The company now apparently relies on Lebanese workers to supply its services and has no intention of recruiting foreign workers again because it cannot provide wages in foreign currency. (Editor)