Bewildered and scared, Ife, an Ethiopian domestic worker, explains how a few hours ago she thought she was on her way to Beirut airport. “So you can fly home,” her cash-strapped employer had said while pushing her out of the car in front of the Ethiopian embassy.
“It was a lie,” whispers the 24-year-old, clutching her belongings like a lifebuoy.
“I cried and cried because I haven’t been paid since January. I have no money. I have a son.”
Ife only has one option: sleep rough alongside a dozen other Ethiopian women also dumped by their employers in front of the consulate in Beirut, and beg to be repatriated home. They are among a growing number of migrant workers in Lebanon that have been abandoned by their bosses who, amid an unprecedented economic collapse, cannot afford to pay their salaries.
Most of the workers interviewed by The Independent say they have not been paid since January when Lebanon’s financial woes began to bite, and so few have the resources to get home. Many also do not have their passports. Under the country’s abusive kafala system, which rights groups say traps them into forced labour and abuse, migrant workers in Lebanon cannot change jobs or leave without permission of their employer, who often withholds their documents.
And so, without rights, funds, and passports, Lebanon’s quarter of a million migrant domestic workers are among the most vulnerable in the country’s economic crash.
This Is Lebanon, an organisation that shames abusive employers, says its caseload has more than doubled over the last few months as the crisis deepened. It is so overwhelmed by calls for help that staff now have to turn away women who have been unpaid for less than seven months.
“It’s awful but we have to tell them we can’t help you any more,” Patricia, a spokeswoman, tells The Independent. “We’re saying the only way is to cut their losses and try to get home.”
And so the group outside the embassy, sleeping amid their suitcases, wait each day for news of a flight home.
“Everything got so much worse these days. No one is getting paid,” says Hayat, 21, who was dumped by her employer four days ago.
“Now I’m sleeping here, I have no passport, no money, I have my pyjamas only.”
Lebanon’s embattled local and immigrant population has been sucker-punched by a staggering financial crisis that could become so severe, experts warn many may starve.
Grounded in decades of chronic mismanagement and corruption, Lebanon saw its economic woes crescendo in October, sparking a revolution. The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in March, which shuttered businesses and halted already dwindling remittances, only made matters worse.
For years, the central bank and successive governments have used the banking system to finance the state, in what critics say is a national equivalent to a Ponzi scheme.
Amid a growing liquidity crisis, the government shut people out of their dollar accounts in the autumn, crippling households and businesses. Three-quarters of deposits to banks in the country are made in dollars.
Blocks from accounts have driven up demand for the US currency and sent the lira into an unprecedented tailspin.
The lira has lost nearly 85 per cent of its value since the start of May and is now trading at over 9,000 to the dollar despite being officially pegged at 1,500.
In fact, the country is just weeks away from official hyperinflation, according to Steve H Hanke, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University and a world expert on the subject. He says if this does happen, it will mark the first-time hyperinflation has ever occurred in the Middle East and only the 61st time it has happened in history.
Right now, he says Lebanon’s inflation rate is more than 500 per cent year-on-year, and 124 per cent compared to last month.
“Lebanon is in a death spiral,” Mr Hanke continues, warning of a situation like Venezuela, which he says is the only country in the world to be experiencing hyperinflation right now. “The government must stop the raging inferno of the currency crisis.”
But little has been done. Food prices change so fast that most shops have stopped putting price tags on items.
On Friday, two Lebanese men in different parts of the country committed suicide due to hunger and the economic crisis. One of them shot himself outside Dunkin’ Donuts in Beirut’s busy shopping district of Hamra. He left a copy of his clean criminal record on his chest, with a note reading “I am not a heretic”, local media reported.
The problem is that food items, particularly imported goods, are now too expensive. In one Beirut supermarket this week, a medium jar of Nescafe coffee was being sold for 70,000 lira – which is $47 (£38) on the official exchange rate. A large bag of low-quality processed pizza cheese there was 75,000 lira, which is pushing $50 (£40).
Even staples like sugar, cereals and beans have more than doubled, according to the Consultation and Research Institute.
Martin Keulertz, assistant professor in the food security programme at the American University of Beirut, warned that amid soaring prices, three-quarters of Lebanon’s 6 million population will be relying on food handouts by the end of the year.
But even then, given the country imports 80 per cent of its food, therefore relying on the fast-disappearing dollars, there may be nothing to hand out.
“Already people can barely afford one meal per day and even then, it’s potatoes and lentils,” he tells The Independent.
“The international community needs to step up now to avoid an all-out crisis. We are going to have a difficult winter. There will be food riots.”
An injection of foreign cash looks unlikely, as previous donors like France, the United States, Britain and the Gulf, are no longer willing to bail out the country without reforms.
The Lebanese government is pinning some hope on a loan from the International Monetary Fund. But despite weeks of discussions, neither side has managed to agree to the size of the country’s losses, let alone how to recover them.
In the meantime, the authorities have done little to firefight other burgeoning crises like fuel shortages which have sparked punishing days-long electricity cuts in many parts of the country. The power outages were so great in Bint Jbeil, in south Lebanon, they caused water shortages as the pumps stopped working. In response, Lebanon’s energy minister Raymond Ghajar urged citizens not to panic-buy candles.
Ensnared in the teeth of the tornado are the poorest and the most vulnerable, like the migrant workers. Rights groups expect many will try to leave as conditions worsen but also fear many more, who are being subjected to increasingly violent levels of abuse, will be locked up at home and made to work for free.
Several women from Ghana messaged The Independent to say their employers had not paid their salaries, had banned them from leaving the house and were rationing their food.
Vida, 27, says she is only fed once a day.
“I’m dizzy. I don’t have the strength to stand, I keep falling down,” she whispers in a WhatsApp voice message, where she describes the sexual assault she suffers at the hands of her male employer.
“They owe me nearly $1,000 but will only give me my passport if I drop my demand to be paid.”
Alberta, also from Ghana, says her 26-year-old cousin Ruby, a domestic worker, passed away three months ago in Lebanon from hunger and neglect.
“She made one phone call in December and she said she was hungry and sick. She called on 15 April the day before she died and said the same thing,” Alberta adds.
This Is Lebanon says Ruby’s medical records show she was hospitalised for general fatigue and anorexia and eventually died “from a heart attack due to septic shock”. The family could not afford a post-mortem examination to determine exactly what had happened.
Outside the Ethiopian embassy, meanwhile, desperation is turning to despair as the days go by. Additions to the group continue to arrive.
Hawa, who is just 17 and so the youngest of the party, says she escaped her employment by climbing out the window. Sitting on a scrap of cardboard, she explains how as the finances of the family worsened the violence shown against her increased.
“My madam would hold me down as her son beat me,” she says, showing a scar snarled across her stomach.
“She still has my passport, but I had to get out. My only hope is to go home.”