In recent weeks, as many as 50 Ethiopian women, formerly employed as domestic workers in the homes of Lebanese citizens, have been abandoned by their employers outside the Ethiopian consulate in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut. Employers apparently resorted to this after being unable to pay their salaries.
The women spend their nights sleeping sprawled across cardboard laid out on the pavement, surrounded by an assortment of luggage and food packages donated from the community. They are on the consulate premises, but Ethiopian consular officials refuse to let them enter the building.
“They don’t let us in,” said Rediet, who says she spent two weeks on the pavement outside the consulate. “My employer just dropped me here and disappeared. The security guard won’t let us near the door. I have nowhere else to go.”
Rediet, like most domestic workers, refuses to give her full name, as she believes that the consulate would target her with retributive action — such as not renewing documentation — for talking to the press.
Lebanon’s economic crash of late 2019 has left citizens struggling to provide for their families, a situation since exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, many Ethiopian domestic workers have been either laid off or are labouring without pay. Rediet was owed six months worth of wages when her employer dumped her outside the consulate with her luggage late one evening. “He didn’t even say thanks or anything. He just drove off as fast as he could,” she said.
Amnesty International reported that some women were being dropped off at the consulate without their passports, and said the Lebanese government needs to intervene. “These women are among the most marginalised people in society, and are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis, which was exacerbated by Covid-19,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s regional director.
Aya Majzoub, the Human Rights Watch researcher on Lebanon, described the practice as “inhumane and illegal, as it violates the terms of the workers’ contracts”. She added: “Lebanon should immediately establish a justice mechanism through which these workers can seek redress for human rights and labour violations.”
By Wednesday, about 35 abandoned domestic workers were still sitting on the concrete ground outside the consulate. On the same day, the consulate announced that it would suspend services indefinitely, without saying why.
Local Lebanese media outlets and their camera teams converged on the scene outside the consulate the same day. Images of the young women, forlorn figures in face masks, caused enough of a public outcry for the Lebanese labour ministry to intervene. “A hotel has been secured for the Ethiopian women,” Labour Minister Lamia Yammine later tweeted. Footage of the girls being bussed off and arriving at their new accommodation made the rounds on social media afterwards.
But word of the gesture appears to have had the opposite of the intended effect, encouraging more employers to abandon their employees. More domestic workers have since been dropped off and by Thursday, another 25 Ethiopian women found themselves exposed to the elements outside the consulate.
“The employers are to blame,” senior consular diplomat and communications head Befirde Dengela told the Mail & Guardian. “They can’t just throw them out here when they can’t afford to pay.”
Asked why the consulate decided to close its doors on June 3, Befirde Dengela stated that it was for the safety of the diplomats. “Some of the women this week got rowdy and attacked us. They are frustrated, but still we shouldn’t be kicked or spat at.”
Betty, who is among the women who have been stranded, disputed this account. “We didn’t do anything to them. We would see them every day as they leave for their parked cars. I haven’t been paid in three months and now I’m homeless. Their job is to help us, but they do everything they can to avoid us.”
Associated Press footage of the consulate’s entrance on May 21 appears to show a Lebanese security officer standing guard while Ethiopian women, unable to enter, stand nearby. When probed as to why the consulate was denying the women access to the consulate’s facilities, including a shelter that could house several dozen of them, Befirde Dengela stated that it was to control the spread of Covid-19.
“The girls haven’t been tested yet,” he explained. “We would be endangering them and our staff in the consulate by allowing them inside. We have repeatedly asked Lebanese authorities to intervene and hold these employers who abandon these women accountable. But they are slow to do so.”
But Iman Khazaal, head of the ministry of labour’s Mount Lebanon office, says the Ethiopian government is to blame for the predicament these women find themselves in. “Lebanon’s economy has been hit hard. We did what we could to facilitate the return of these women to Ethiopia by lifting the fines that undocumented migrants would normally be charged,” she explained. “But Ethiopia refuses to evacuate its citizens.”
The only available route home for Ethiopian domestic workers is aboard an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa, with one-way tickets costing an astronomical $1 450. This is an impossible sum for domestic workers, who previously earned as little as $150 monthly.
“How can they expect anyone in Lebanon to afford tickets at that price?” Khazaal said. “We haven’t had such issues with any other embassy. I respect the ties between our countries, but we are confused with the Ethiopian government’s approach.”
Khazaal added that the government is working on bringing legal action against Lebanese employers who throw their workers into the streets, but said, “Many of the women are undocumented, and this is complicating the identification process”.
Zecharias Zelalem is an Ethiopian journalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZekuZelalem.