Lebanon's unseen Bangladeshi migrant workers revolt for basic rights

Lebanon's unseen Bangladeshi migrant workers revolt for basic rights
A riot that broke out inside a Lebanese waste management firm is the latest manifestation of an isolated migrant community's years-long struggle under the Kafala system.
8 min read
20 May, 2020
Bangladeshi workers in Lebanon are employed under the notorious 'Kafala' system. [Facebook/Ramco]
Cash-strapped and trapped, Bangladeshi workers in economic crisis-hit Lebanon have found themselves unable to support their families back home, or reunite with them. 

Last week, in a Tuesday protest, dozens of Bangladeshi  janitors employed by the Lebanese waste collection company Ramco rampaged at the firm's premises in Metn, demanding fair compensation for their work.

The angered employees are on strike over the payment of their salaries in the depreciating Lebanese Lira, which has lost over half its value in recent months, despite their employment contract stating payments should be made in USD – hard currency that has now nearly evaporated from circulation in Lebanon.

Ramco took over Lebanon's waste collection in 2018 on a five-year contract. It now employs over 400 workers – 250 of whom are from Bangladesh.

The waste management firm pays its trash collectors around $400 in monthly wages, according to Ramco's Chief Financial Officer Walid Bou Saad. In recent months, the company started paying all employees, including migrant workers, in the local currency at the official pegged rate which is much lower than the market value.

Inspired by Lebanon's 'October Revolution' Bangladeshi workers chanted 'Thawra,' Arabic for revolution, a word which has been resonating across the Middle East for a decade

Ramco's Waste Management wing also employs Indians and around one hundred Lebanese, according to Bou Saad.

One Bangladeshi Ramco employee told The New Arab that Ramco's monthly payments are now worth 'less than $150' – this if foreign workers even succeed in finding an exchange officer willing to swap the currency. 

Many of the workers reiterated that their government has done little to help, while Lebanon's labour laws do not recognise migrant workers as legitimate workers. 

Migrant workers are employed under the 'Kafala' – or sponsorship – system, which legally binds the worker's residence in the country to their employer. It also traps workers in contracts that can only be terminated with the consent of employers, who often require compensation as penalty, even in the case of abuse or non-payment of salary.

The angered employees are on strike over the payment of their salaries
in the depreciating Lebanese Lira [Ramco]

Anger and hopelessness felt by foreign workers in recent months manifested in Tuesday's riot at Ramco, where dozens of employees participated in a demonstration and according to Bou Saad "destroyed some of the company's property".

Videos filmed by both employers and employees showed the uniformed Ramco workers throwing metal sticks and other objects at riot police who were called in to control the situation.

Inspired by Lebanon's 'October Revolution', Bangladeshi workers chanted 'Thawra,' Arabic for revolution. A word which has been resonating across the Middle East for a decade after protest movements began to unfold. The protesters marched along the company premises, where they are housed, voicing their anger.

In comments to The New Arab, Bou Saad claimed the riot police were summoned after workers allegedly spilled fuel on company vehicles plotting to burn them. Following some on-site clashes with Lebanon's police, one worker was arrested "on charges of throwing fuel and attempting to burn a policeman" and remains in detention, according to the Ramco officer.

Ramco, he said, has not filed any charges against any of the 74 workers who took part in the riot "despite damages to the company TVs, offices and vehicles." 

Monir Houssain, a Bangladeshi aid worker in Lebanon did not attack the company, but condemned the use of violence by security forces. 

The Bangladesh Embassy is expecting upwards of 10,000 workers to apply for repatriation

"We Bangladeshis are coming to Lebanon for work. Not to be abused! We also have children and families ... such torture by the police is really inhumane behaviour," Houssain said in a public Facebook post.

Following the violent escalation, two statements attributed to unnamed company employees surfaced on social media alleging mistreatment, abuse, medical neglect, suicide cover-ups and attempted murder within the company – in addition to non-payment of salaries.

Read more: Lebanon's Anti-Racism Movement is a lifeline for vulnerable migrant workers during coronavirus

Lea Bou Khater, a Lebanese labour movement researcher and professor, said she had been in contact with company workers. On Saturday, she published a statement in English which detailed harrowing accounts attributed to Ramco employees.

In a striking opening-line, the communique, which is a translation of an earlier 'leaked' Arabic statement, narrates an incident that allegedly took place in April. 
Some 170,000 Bangladeshi workers live in Lebanon according to estimates [Getty]

"One of our Bangladeshi workers named Enayet Ullah is mentally ill in Lebanon RAMCO company. Without any treatment from the company he was locked up in a dark room ... underground for three days and physically and mentally tortured by Ramco company security" 

Unanimous demands by "all Bangladeshi and Indian workers" listed include earlier payments, one day off per week and an "end to all violence and abuse against workers."

Read more: Gulf migrant workers count the cost of coronavirus

In a tweet, Khater said the company offers "poor crowded accommodation and provides inadequate food portions" mostly comprised of rice and lentils. "Workers are only allowed to take leave if they are traveling to their country," she added.

The New Arab could not independently verify the authenticity of either statement. Footage emerged early Tuesday, depicting a Bangladeshi man on the floor with ropes around his ankles. According to the video caption, the man depicted in a Ramco T-shirt is Ullah. 

We Bangladeshis are coming to Lebanon for work. Not to be abused! We also have children and families ... such torture by the police is really inhumane behaviour

TNA could not verify the authenticity of the video, which prompted an official response by Ramco on Wednesday. In a statement, Ramco said the footage was taken inside the prayer room used by workers and was "cheap acting orchestrated by some employees". Ramco also invited those "concerned about human rights" to visit the facilities.

The uproar and condemnation by local rights defenders prompted a swift intervention by the Bangladesh Embassy, as well as the Lebanese Ministry of Labour. 

In a phone interview, Abdullah Al Mamun – head of Chancery and Consul at the Bangladeshi Embassy – told The New Arab his embassy has sent officials to Ramco along with investigators from the labour ministry to speak to workers. Neither party has found accounts of physical abuse, he said.

Mamun did not specify if Ramco supervisors were present during the investigations.

"We did not find anything related to that. The main concern is the payment of salaries. You know the salary they're paying is now in Lebanese currency. Our lawyer met with Ramco and asked them to pay the full month salary in USD, but Ramco said it's not possible," Mamun said, adding that the majority have expressed an urgent need for repatriation.

Bou Saad fiercely denied the allegations, claiming the statement – which contains some accurate insider company information – was not released by Ramco workers.

"These are lies. Our workers are not the ones who released this. We have provided them dorms that are up to international standards and we provide them with food," Bou Saad said.

Up to March 2020, all salaries have been paid in full, he claimed – albeit in Lebanese Lira. "We pay them on the 10th day of the month, but we have not released last month's payment because they have been on strike and we are still in negotiations," Bou Saad said.

The Bangladesh embassy is currently negotiating a solution to the salary issue, as well as trying to arrange flights back home for an overwhelming number of Bangladeshi migrants in Lebanon who applied for repatriation, the embassy representative said.

Over 7,600 illegal Bangladesh nationals without residency have already signed up for embassy returns, with more expected to apply in coming days, Mamun said. The applications are part of efforts by Bangladesh to return some 30,000 illegal workers globally.
Punished for demanding basic rights, isolated by a language barrier and tucked away in crammed housing arrangements, many Bangladeshi workers interviewed by The New Arab reported feeling invisible
The Bangladesh embassy has asked the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to fund the flights, and has already secured the approval of Lebanon's General Security, the embassy representative said.

"We are trying to arrange special flights in this time. Our government is discussing with IOM and seeking support," Mamun said. Whether expats will have to pay for their own tickets will depend on the funding secured, he added. 

Seven different Bangladeshi residents, including two Ramco workers, said they were not aware of any torture allegations but demanded the company compensate for their employees and "stop overworking" them.

The Ramco employees make up a small portion of an estimated 170,000 Bangladeshi workers living in Lebanon. Most had been working in the country for years and sending support to their families back home before the economic crisis saw their situation further deteriorate.

Punished for demanding basic rights, isolated by a language barrier and tucked away in crammed housing arrangements, many Bangladeshi workers interviewed by The New Arab reported feeling invisible, unseen or forgotten as Lebanon experiences one of its worst economic and social crises, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Monday, the Lebanese Health ministry said 18 Bangladeshi residents were confirmed to be infected with the novel coronavirus, the first cases announced among the expatriate community in Lebanon.

The news sparked additional fears within the Bangladeshi online community. What was once a support group, a place to build a community, has now become a public outlet to vent frustrations. Hundreds of posts all tell the same painful story.

"We want to highlight the situation that we are in during this time. We know that many of us are not in good condition. We have made our biggest mistake: Why did we come to Lebanon?" Imran Ali Pahil said in Bengali in a video posted on one of the Facebook groups.
A meeting at Lebanon's Ministry of Labour with Bangladesh embassy
officials [Facebook]

Lebanon's General Security has announced that repatriation flights out of Lebanon will start on 20 May, flying out Egyptian and Ethiopian workers. No flights have been announced to Bangladesh yet.

"There is only one thought experienced by thousands of expatriates, what will happen to my family if something happens to me? Today helpless expatriates are waiting for a dawn, when they will wake up and hear that the whole world is healthy, the storm of plague has stopped," another Lebanon-based worker said.

With rising unemployment and inflation devastating even the comparatively better-off Lebanese labour force, many marginalised Bangladeshi workers reported being scared for their lives and the lives of their families.

"I can't hold my tears. People in Lebanon are going down to the streets without food. Now think about what will happen to the expatriates ... Only Allah knows the extent of our pain," ‎Md Tuhin Buiyan‎ said on the Lebanon Prabasi group.

Gasia Ohanes is a journalist with The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @GasiaOhanes