Lebanon’s dollar crisis hits migrants workers

Migrant workers from Bangladesh, working for waste management company RAMCO, inside their dormitory at a company facility in Biakout, near Beirut, Lebanon. The dollar crisis has affected migrant labor especially badly in Lebanon. (Reuters)
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Updated 23 May 2020

Lebanon’s dollar crisis hits migrants workers

  • International labor force bears the brunt of Beirut’s economic woes, as the economy reels from currency and virus crises

BEIRUT: Temitope cannot find work in Lebanon since the Nigerian domestic worker escaped her employer’s house last month.

With Lebanon in deep financial crisis and dollars in short supply, people have less money to spend on help. And with Beirut airport shut under a coronavirus lockdown, Temitope can’t go back home even if she tries.

“I’m very afraid. There’s not a day that I don’t cry ... without any money even to eat now,” said Temitope, who climbed down a building after her employer beat her until she bled. She now lives with friends, relying on any cash they can give her.

Like many African and Asian women in Lebanon, Temitope, a mother of two, was recruited for work and came so she could send money home to her family.

But dollar shortages piling pressure on hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Lebanon have left some stranded in the streets and many begging to go home. Rights groups warn this puts workers at risk of abuse and trauma.

Embassy and NGO shelters are saturated.

Since Lebanon plunged into crisis late last year, the local currency has lost more than half its value. Prices have soared as more Lebanese slide into poverty.

The coronavirus pandemic has also hampered government efforts to repatriate workers via their embassies, and even those flights require payment in dollars.

“There’s more need than ever before for shelters...for those who lost jobs and have no place else to go,” said Zeina Mezher of the International Labour Organization.

Activist groups say they field regular phone calls from unpaid domestic workers who have been kicked out of their accomodation or escaped their employer’s households.

Migrant workers form the backbone of sectors like waste collection and housekeeping in Lebanon, where many barely have any rights, face widespread racism and sometimes commit suicide.

Most women work as maids under a sponsorship system called “kafala” that even the former labor minister likened to slavery. It prevents them from leaving without the employer’s consent, with salaries as low as $150 a month.

Last month, police interrogated a Lebanese man who tried to sell his Nigerian housekeeper for $1,000 on the social media site Facebook.

“The crises, whether it’s coronavirus or the economy, expose the flaws in the kafala system,” Mezher said.

The prime minister’s wife sparked controversy last week when she called on Lebanese people facing rising unemployment to take up jobs usually filled by foreigners like housekeeper or doorman.

Bangladeshi trash collectors went on strike for weeks after the firm managing waste in Beirut, RAMCO, switched to paying them in Lebanese pounds, undermining the value of their wages.

When workers stopped garbage trucks from going out in protest last week, riot police arrived, firing smoke grenades at some and beating up others.

Mohamad Ilahi, one of the workers, has not sent money to his wife and two daughters in Bangladesh for months. “My family cries a lot,” he said. “They can’t pay school fees, and can’t buy enough food.”

He said RAMCO had agreed to a pay raise in local currency.

RAMCO manager Walid BouSaad said the company had no choice because the Lebanese state, its main customer, had stopped paying in dollars late last year, on top of millions the government already owed in arrears. “It is the worker’s right to ask for payment in dollars,” he said. “But some things are out of our hands.”

For Ilahi, the future in Lebanon remains uncertain. “I want to work. But without a solution, there’s no use for me here,” he said. “I will want to leave then. All of us will.” 


Cheese, car parts and Kobe beef: UK’s trade deal with Japan

EU Chief negotiator Michel Barnier walks to a meeting in London, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. (AP)
Updated 24 October 2020

Cheese, car parts and Kobe beef: UK’s trade deal with Japan

  • Britain hopes new agreement will provide better access to Japanese markets

TOKYO: Britain says the post-Brexit trade deal signed with Japan on Friday “secures major wins that would be impossible as part of the EU”, though its substance is largely similar to the current EU-Japan accord.

Britain hopes the agreement will boost trade with Japan by around $20 billion when it comes into force in January after being ratified by lawmakers in both countries.
Here are four things to know about the bilateral deal: When the deal was announced last month, Britain said it meant around 99 percent of its exports to Japan would be tariff-free.
Under the current EU-Japan trade agreement, in place since February 2019, the vast majority of custom duties are also absent.
The European Union says that under its deal, the bloc’s meat exports to Japan increased by 12 percent, while electrical machinery exports were boosted by 16.4 percent.
“In terms of market access, we have maintained Japan’s high level access to the UK market as under the Japan-EU deal,” Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said on Friday.
“And for some products such as train cars and autoparts, we have improved access.”
The Japan-UK deal has a particular focus on exports in the food and drink, finance and tech sectors, and aims to reduce red tape for British pork, beef and salmon farmers.
It also includes brand protection for British goods, including English sparkling wine, Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese and Welsh lamb.
In return, the UK government says consumers will be able to buy “cheaper, high-quality Japanese goods — from udon noodles to Bluefin tuna and Kobe beef.”

FASTFACT

There are currently 241 British businesses in the agriculture and food sector who import from Japan, and 693 who export goods to Japan.

There are currently 241 British businesses in the agriculture and food sector who import from Japan, and 693 who export goods to Japan, the UK government says.
But unlike the Japan-EU deal, this agreement lacks quotas for agricultural exports like cheese, according to the Financial Times, and instead allows Britain to use any such quotas left over by the EU.
The deal includes new provisions on digital trade that aim to ease the flow of data, among other changes.
“This deal doesn’t just preserve existing benefits, but it strikes out in services like digital and data, where the UK and Japan both have strengths, and hope to collaborate in future,” said Britain’s International Trade Secretary Liz Truss.
The UK hopes the deal will help its companies that supply services — from financial to telecoms and transport — gain access to the Japanese market.
While some analysts have cast doubt on how much difference the new digital provisions will make, British businesses have welcomed the agreement.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, called it a “breakthrough moment”.
Japan accounted for around just two percent of Britain’s trade last year, government statistics show — roughly the same as Norway.
But the deal could act as a bridge for the UK to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, also known as TPP-11 — a free-trade deal between 11 countries including Japan, Canada, Mexico, Vietnam and Australia.
It was previously known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and had been slated to be the world’s largest trade pact before the United States withdrew in 2017, blocking its ratification.
Truss said the deal “paves the way” for Britain to join the partnership — but this is likely to be a complex manoeuvre that will take years.