Migrant workers on weeks-long strike in Lebanon close to deal with employer

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After weeks of unprecedented striking, migrant workers in Lebanon were close to reaching a deal to end the strike with their employer Tuesday. An official for waste management company Ramco, Bangladeshi embassy officials and migrant workers confirmed to Al Arabiya English that a deal was close to being reached, but refused to divulge details.

The strike began in late April, and peaked last week with a sit in at the company’s premises close to Beirut, led by mainly Bangladeshi and Indian migrant workers. Their complaints included the payment of their wages in Lebanese lira – which is rapidly deteriorating in value – rather than the US dollars stipulated in their contract, and anger over the detainment and alleged abuse of one of their colleagues.

Last Tuesday, with workers preventing waste collection vehicles from leaving the premises, Ramco officials called security forces to the scene. Footage shared on social media shows riot police beating the grey-suited workers, deploying tear gas and making at least one arrest.

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As of this week, while Ramco workers from Lebanon and surrounding countries such as Syria are continuing to work as normal, many of those from Bangladesh and India continue to strike.

Migrant workers in Lebanon have been hit particularly hard by the country’s financial crisis. They are tied to their employer by the kafala system, which was likened by former Lebanese Labor Mminister Camille Abousleiman to “modern day slavery,” and lack the same legal protections in the workforce as Lebanese workers.

According to Lebanese legal NGO the Legal Agenda, the strike by Ramco workers was potentially the first of its kind by migrant workers in the country. Representatives from the NGO said this could mark a “turning point” for migrant workers in the country.

With the value of the Lebanese lira tumbling from its official rate of 1,500 lira to the dollar, to recent lows of 4,500, migrant workers are seeing the value of the money, known as remittances, they send home plummet.

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When the financial crisis began to grip last summer, Ramco – which is supposed to receive payment for government contracts in dollars – started paying employees 450,000 lira a month, close to the $350 stipulated in their contract at the official rate. Foreign workers have since negotiated an increase in their salary to 600,000 lira, but this figure still falls well below their dollar salary at market rates.

“There’s a prevalence of unpaid wages [for migrant workers],” said George Ghali, executive director at Lebanese human rights NGO ALEF. After the financial crisis, “Even if you were getting paid as a migrant worker … the value of what you were getting paid is completely undermined.”

Ramco workers told Al Arabiya English that they had not been paid for days they had not worked due to government lockdown measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, reducing their take-home wages yet further. Ramco denies the charge, saying workers are paid a full salary provided they have not taken part in the ongoing strike action.

Workers said one of their main grievances, beyond payment issues, that triggered their decision to strike was the abusive treatment of a colleague, who was described as “mentally unstable.” The man is alleged to have been held in an isolation room for three days as a result of his condition.

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Workers say that while he was in isolation, he was beaten. His colleagues say they came to his assistance at one point while he was in isolation after hearing the man’s cries for help.

“He was being beaten so mercilessly that even we were shocked. We were accustomed to beating, but this seemed dangerous even to us,” one colleague told Al Arabiya English.

The man, interviewed on Tuesday, showed Al Arabiya English marks of abuse on his body and said, “The security tied me up and beat me. They locked me up for three days and beat me … My pain knew no limits.”

Ramco officials stringently deny the allegations and say that any physical marks were incurred when his colleagues tried to restrain the man while he was unstable.

The Bangladeshi embassy, which has been negotiating between striking workers and Ramco, told Al Arabiya English that the worker was not tortured and suggested the man’s story was being manipulated by colleagues to strengthen their hand in strike negotiations.

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