Malt is an Ethiopian domestic worker who works for a Lebanese family in the countryside. While she was shopping for the household she met Zabiba, another Ethiopian worker. “Are you being paid in dollars?”, Zabiba asked. Malt glanced around to make sure nobody was watching and then gestured that she was not. In fact, with the rising price of the dollar to the Lebanese lira, Malt had begun receiving her USD200 wage as LL300,000 per the official exchange rate of LL1,500 to the dollar. Today, this amount is approximately worth USD40 on the black market, via which Malt would need to exchange her money before transferring it home to her family.
Zabiba placed a small piece of paper in Malt’s hand and said, “Talk to me on WhatsApp on this number”. Late that day, when Malt was alone in her “room” (a balcony enclosed in glass and aluminum) on a portable metal bed that the family had bought for her five years ago, she messaged the worker she had met in the market: “Now I can talk to you”. And so the story began.
Zabiba asked Malt whether she wanted to change her life for the better. “LL300,000 isn’t worth USD30 at the moment – the family is playing you for a fool”, she said. Zabiba told Malt that she could send her to Dubai with a wage no less than USD330, “and they might give you 400 because you speak Arabic and have experience”. Zabiba asked for permission to give Malt’s number to an Ethiopian man working in the UAE. She ended the conversation with a message saying, “Don’t worry – I’ve sent five girls from here already”.
Less than ten minutes later, the man contacted Malt. He did not add much to Zabiba’s information, but he reassured Malt and encouraged her not to worry: “You’ll be very comfortable here. There’s lots of money”. He told her to wait for her Dubai entry visa. “Tomorrow at noon you’ll have it”, he said before ending the conversation.
In the morning, Malt did not mention anything to the family. Indeed, at noon, she received a picture of the visa on her phone. “At first I was very scared”, she told her friend, an Ethiopian worker named Ammoush, who cares for an elderly woman among the neighbors. Ammoush, described by the employer as a veteran worker who is clever and understands everything, encouraged Malt: “What is USD30? Go and don’t be afraid. You have to go”. Together, they developed Malt’s plan.
“Madam, I want to leave the job.” Malt did not lie. Completely honestly, she told the family, which she had served for five years, “I want to go to Dubai. They’ll give me USD400. If you pay me this amount in dollars, I won’t go”. And so it was. There was nothing the family could do. They could not even pay her USD200 wage in hard currency, they said, so how could they pay USD400? After this discussion, Malt’s ticket arrived. The family took her to Beirut airport, and she departed on good terms.
Malt is one of 6,844 female Ethiopian workers, as well as five male ones, who left Lebanon for Dubai between January 1 and October 5, 2020, according to statistics that Lebanese General Security provided at our request. One recruitment agency owner believes that the overwhelming majority of them went to the UAE to work: “Otherwise, it would be better for them to go directly to Addis Ababa on an Ethiopian airline”.
As for Zabiba, who helped Malt leave, she is part of a network of individuals and agencies that has, over the last three months, been liaising between Beirut and Dubai, which is suffering a supply shortage.
General Security’s statistics confirm that the departure of Ethiopian workers for Dubai is one of the phenomena emerging from the collapse of the Lebanese lira’s buying power amidst the economic crisis that engulfed the country in late 2019 and the new circumstances accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic. The phenomenon displays some features of trafficking: ads by some UAE recruitment agencies targeting workers in Lebanon hint that intermediaries would receive financial compensation up to USD400, potentially varying based on the worker’s nationality.
From One Worker to Another
Ammoush, who encouraged Malt to leave, also received a job offer in Dubai: “After Malt traveled, she sent me pictures of a very lovely, big home and told me that if I want to go, she would talk to the agency and it would send me a visa”. Ammoush chuckled and said, “Right away, Malt was also working to take workers”. Ammoush did contact an Ethiopian man in Dubai and was surprised when he sent her an entry visa just hours after she sent him an image of her passport. In the picture of the visa, which Ammoush sent to the Legal Agenda, the type is listed as “sales representative”. Ammoush promptly informed the family employing her of her desire to leave for Dubai even though she is receiving her wage – USD200 – in hard currency: “But there, they’ll give me USD330, so 130 more”. But the family said that a year remained on her contract and that she should at least give them two months to arrange another worker for the elderly woman with whom she lives: “Mama is 87 years old and can’t live alone”. When Ammoush told the Ethiopian intermediary about the family’s decision, he said, “No, that’s no good for us. You either come now or not at all”. Ammoush decided to stay: “I’m happy here. I don’t know if it’s all true in Dubai and if I’ll be comfortable, and I’m receiving my wage in dollars”.
From Dubai to Lebanon
We contacted the owner of a domestic worker recruitment agency that operates in Dubai and places its address on Facebook. He explained that because of COVID-19, domestic labor is in short supply in the UAE: “There are no domestic workers, there is demand, and there’s a crisis in Lebanon. In other words, we’re killing three birds with one stone”. These “birds” are the Lebanese families unable to pay in dollars or even to pay the airfare to send the worker home in some instances; the worker herself, whose wage has fallen by 85% when the family pays her LL300,000 in lieu of USD200; and the families demanding workers in Dubai. When we contacted four other agencies in Dubai, their representatives expressed a readiness to recruit domestic workers from Lebanon, and the phrase, “They can’t pay dollars in Lebanon”, was the common denominator. They told us that they pay every intermediary “USD400 for each girl”. A young man with a Lebanese accent sent a video of ten Ethiopian workers waiting in the agency’s foyer: “They are all Ethiopians who just arrived from Beirut airport”.
The man with the Lebanese accent explained that the crisis arose from the current inability to recruit workers from Ethiopia. Although Ethiopia has banned its workers from going to certain countries, including the UAE and Lebanon, male and female workers were being smuggled from Ethiopia to these countries via Sudan: “Now Sudan has closed its borders with Ethiopia because of Corona, so there is no labor supply because they cannot be delivered to Sudan as occurred in the past”. The man added, “There are many [domestic] workers who lost their jobs, and that suits us”.
The agencies in Dubai are only interested in domestic workers of Ethiopian nationality, according to the same agency owner: “We don’t recruit from African countries nor Bangladesh. Although we know that there are many such workers in Lebanon, families here in the UAE do not like to employ them”. Regarding the conditions for recruiting a worker to Dubai, he said, “We pay USD400 to the intermediary and cover the travel expenses, i.e. the visa and the airfare”, and then confirmed that “the intermediary nets USD400”. He also elaborated on the good conditions for the worker: “If she has experience and knows how to cook, she gets AED1,500, i.e. USD420”. He also mentioned that the agency is legally responsible for her: “They have allowed us to recruit the workers on a visitor visa that turns into a work visa as soon as the worker signs a contract with an employer here”. He said that the agency has a “history” of recruiting domestic workers: “We’ve been operating the agency for 40 years. We don’t do anything outside the law. Here there is a state that polices everything”, he responded when questioned about who guarantees the workers’ rights.
Another recruitment agency in Dubai was more overt. The agency placed an ad on its Facebook page reading, “If a domestic worker has become a burden upon you and you want to reduce your expenses, we have the solution. We are a licensed company in the UAE, and we can help you send your domestic worker from Lebanon to the UAE if she wants to work and move here”. The ad continues, “We have a licensed labor agency in Lebanon and a licensed agency in the UAE, and we provide you with financial compensation for relinquishing the worker’s services, based on her nationality”. The ad includes a number for contacting the agency via WhatsApp for “information about how we can help you obtain financial compensation for sending your worker safely from Lebanon to the UAE”. Attached to the ad is a picture of five uniformed workers from Ethiopia and Asian countries.
The advertisement contains some features of human trafficking as it encourages employers to facilitate sending worker’s abroad for a financial return. In such a case, the family would terminate the worker’s contract on the grounds of an inability to pay her agreed-upon wage, so it would be the party breaching the contract and would therefore have no justification for demanding compensation for the cost it originally paid to recruit her.
Under the general principles and operational guidelines for fair recruitment that the International Labour Organization adopted in 2016, recruitment agencies may play a role in facilitating migrant workers’ access to employment opportunities provided that they exert the necessary care regarding working conditions in the destination country and ensure that the workers are not misled about their working and living conditions and not burdened with any expenses. Yet these [Ethiopian workers] have no guarantees besides the promises that the owner of the employment agency in the UAE gives them. Something to the effect of, “I know [the owner] of the agency in Dubai well – he’s kind and he provides the workers with job opportunities that respect their rights”, was a common refrain heard by the Legal Agenda from multiple agency owners active in sending the workers abroad. Ali Al Amin, president of the Syndicate of Owners of Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon (SORAL), told the Legal Agenda that, “The Ministry of Labor has no direct role in this process. The intermediary who secures a job opportunity in Dubai for a worker after her contract with the employer in Lebanon has ended obtains her UAE entry visa and plane ticket. The worker, after her contract either finishes or is canceled by the Lebanese family because of its inability to pay her dues, has the right to travel just like any other person”.
From Lebanon to Dubai
SORAL sources confirm that, “The syndicate has not been contacted, as a body regulating the agencies, to provide a framework for the workers’ transfer to the UAE”. After being redirected among agencies and workers, we got in contact with one agency in Lebanon while posing as an employer unable to pay her worker’s wage in dollars: “Don’t worry. I will send her abroad, and the visa and airfare are on me. What’s more, I’ll give you LL1 million for your own pocket”. When we asked further questions on the pretext of seeking reassurance about the worker’s situation there, the man stated that he has sent ten workers so far and added, “If you know other workers besides your one, I’ll give you LL1 million for each one too”. He added that he is an intermediary solving the problems of families unable to pay in dollars: “There are people abandoning workers in the street because they can’t buy a ticket to send them home”. The payment of LL1 million to the family, he argues, enables it to settle any debt it may owe the worker. Two days later, we called the agency owner again and told him that we had been called by an agency in Dubai offering USD400 for each worker sent. He became muddled and asked for the agency’s phone number: “Be careful. They are liars, and you don’t know what they do to the worker. I send them [the workers] to my relative. He works there and finds them respectable families that guarantee their rights, and he follows up on them too”.
The transfer of workers from Lebanon to Dubai over the past couple of months has impacted the activity of many agencies that managed to make profits by moving workers among families within Lebanon because of the current inability to recruit them from abroad. The owner of one agency said that despite the crisis, there is still some demand for the workers in Lebanon: “There are still people who can pay dollars, and we have been serving them by moving workers who resorted to us themselves or whose employers came to us because they can’t pay their worker’s wage in dollars. We obtain a relinquishment [of sponsorship from the original employer] in favor of another employer for her”. He continued, “Of course there are families able [to pay], and there are people who can’t do without a worker to care for the elderly or children of working parents”, but those able to pay wages as high as those in Dubai are few and far between in Lebanon today.
To underscore the positive effect of sending the workers to Dubai, one agency owner that acts as an intermediary in the process noted the decline in the number of Ethiopian workers in front of their embassy: “They found work with a respectable wage instead of sitting on the road next to the embassy”. He said that it is impossible to offer work to a worker comfortable in the employer’s home: “I just send the workers who have problems with the families and ask me to find solutions for them”.
Such offers, which are spreading like wildfire, have reached most Lebanese families that are still employing Ethiopian workers. They prompted one woman to ban her worker from using her mobile phone: “My neighbor’s worker suddenly stopped wanting to work for 150 dollars even though she is paying her in dollars. The worker’s friend organized work for her in Dubai with a wage of USD330, so she left”. Hence, this woman prohibited the worker from contacting any other worker: “Tomorrow they’ll ruin her for me and she’ll leave. Where will I get another?”.
On the other hand, workers such as Sara have exploited their job offers in Dubai to improve their wages in Lebanon: “I was earning USD200, so I told the madam’s daughter that I want to leave for Dubai. They need me and are also very good to me. Now I earn USD250, and their daughter promised to give me extra on the side, so I stayed”.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.