A pandemic, an economic collapse and the migrant domestic workers

How did the numbers of migrant domestic workers coming to or staying regularly in Lebanon change over the past 5 years under the effects of the economic collapse and the Covid-19 pandemic? A comparative view in numbers.

The year 2019 saw a significant decrease in the number of work permits issued for the first time to women migrant domestic workers, according to the classification of the Lebanese Ministry of Labor, compared to the years 2017 and 2018.

Before the economic crisis, which began to materialize in the early months of 2019, the number of issued work permits reached two close numbers, both exceeding 70,000 permits for the years 2017 and 2018.

The decreasing number sharply plummeted in 2019, the year of which the final third saw a significant decline in the exchange rate of the Lebanese pound against the US dollar in the wake of what became known as the “October 17 revolution.”

Under the pretext of the popular protests, and simultaneously with the fall in the exchange rate and the purchasing power of citizens and residents, Lebanese banks prevented depositors from accessing their accounts, and in the following months tightened limits on cash withdrawals in foreign currencies.

The fall in purchasing power and the inability to withdraw funds deposited in the banks translated into a decline in the number of new work permits, from 70,857 and 76,570 permits issued in 2017 and 2018 respectively, to 35,957 issued in 2019.

The number of the first-time work permits issued continued to sharply decline in 2020. By the end of 2021, it became relatively stable at less than 10,000 permits.

The value of the Lebanese pound in these two years dropped repeatedly, with the market exchange rate reaching more than 20 times the official exchange rate of 1,500 Lebanese pounds against the dollar, in conjunction with the spread of COVID-19 and the subsequent restrictions imposed on movement and travel.

Considering the number of new work permits issued in the past five years, the distribution of permits to different nationalities reveals a large discrepancy in the number of migrant domestic workers coming to Lebanon.

In 2019, the number of new work permits granted to Ethiopian migrant domestic workers was 14,073; that is 79.8% less than their number in 2018, which registered 69,669 permits for Ethiopian workers. The overall decline in the number of new work permits issued that year (for all nationalities) was 56.9%.

On the other hand, the number of first-time work permits issued to Ghanaian migrant domestic workers increased to 7,408 in 2019, that is, 14 times more than the 498 work permits issued to them in 2018.

The number of new work permits granted to migrant workers of Kenyan nationality also increased from 163 to 824 in 2019; that is, more than fivefold in one year.

These discrepancies, which show simultaneous increases and decreases in the numbers of issued work permits, are partly due to the different wage ranges ascribed to migrant workers according to their different nationalities. In fact, this discrepancy in wages has been important for a group of Lebanese who wanted to keep benefiting from “domestic service” despite their financial hardships in light of the economic crisis, and they could do so by hiring “cheap” labor.

The reality of migrant workers in Lebanon is not reflected in the numbers of work permits granted for the first time alone; the decreasing number of renewed work permits by the Ministry of Labor is also indicative of a growing number of workers who have left Lebanon, as well as of those who are “illegally” residing and working in the country.

However, unlike the number of new permits that has seen a significant decrease in 2019, the overall number of renewed permits (granted to migrant workers who have been working in Lebanon in the previous years) has increased this year.

Compared to the years 2018-2019, the number of renewed work permits has increased from 129,394 to 149,535, that is, by 15.6%.

This discrepancy in the number of new and renewed permits pertains to the fact that the Lebanese refrained from recruiting new labor at the beginning of the economic crisis, while continuing to renew the permits of those workers who were already part of the resident workforce.

This trend will soon be reversed, with a sharp decline in the number of renewed work permits approved by the Ministry of Labor in the years 2020 and 2021.

Compared to the year 2019, the years 2020 and 2021 saw a decrease in the number of renewed work permits from 149,535 to 108,677 and 55,179, respectively, that is, a decrease by 27.3% for 2020 and by 63% for 2021, in comparison to 2019.

This significant decline coincided with the exacerbation of the economic crisis in Lebanon and the fall of the Lebanese currency exchange rate to an all-time low, prompting a large number of Lebanese people who were previously reliant on domestic workers to abandon them.

During the two years of the economic crisis, many employers of migrant domestic workers were deserting their moral and legal duties, by dumping their employees on the streets, without shelter and without their passports, in order to avoid settling their legal status and paying their dues.

Joining the numbers related to the new work permits with the renewed ones can reveal the overall decline trend over the past three years.

In 2019, the total number of work permits amounted to 182,492. The number decreased to 118,044 in 2020, by 35.3%, and then to 64,925 in 2021, with a decrease of 64.4% compared to 2019, or 44.9% compared to 2018.

The absence of figures about the voluntary departure of migrant workers from Lebanon or their deportation due to illegal residency statuses makes it difficult to identify how many migrant workers have remained in Lebanon to work in the informal labor sector, without a work permit or legal residence.

On the other hand, the spread of COVID-19, in conjunction with the exacerbated economic crisis, led to a decrease in the number of irregular workers in the “domestic service” sector, that is, those who work for hourly wages. With the imposition of social distancing and with some families increasingly fearing to bring in “foreign maids who carry the disease with them into the house,” migrant workers found themselves without financial resources, after losing their work, places of residence (at their workplace), and their identification documents.

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This project is part of the global initiative
“Transparency and media freedom – Crisis resilience in the pandemic”

This project is the result of a workshop of DW Akademie. All views expressed in this project are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Deutsche Welle.

Story: Youssef Hajj Ali
Arabic to English Translation: Sabah Jalloul
Illustration: Tharwa Zeitoun
Photographs: Hussein baydoun
Video: Ali Chiran, Fourate Chahal El Rekaby
Design: Ibrahim Charara
Development: Jaafar Charara, Rawan Houri

Editor: Ibrahim Charara