On Tuesday the 12th of May, workers at RAMCO, the waste management company, protested unfair wages and their dehumanizing working conditions at RAMCO’s headquarters in Ras Beirut. Riot police forces were called upon to contain the rightful protests by assaulting the workers and throwing tear gas canisters. The strike, which some workers had begun two weeks earlier, is motivated by the refusal of RAMCO to pay them their salaries in dollars and their complete disregard for the workers’ human rights.
The vast majority of workers at RAMCO are migrant workers from Bangladesh and India which excludes them from the Lebanese Labor Law and instead subjects them to the Kafala system which ties their residency to their employment. The Kafala system has long been described as a form of modern-day slavery and the situation of RAMCO workers is no different. In a statement released by the workers, they brought to light the mistreatment that they endure. A Bangladeshi worker, Enayet Ullah, who suffers from a mental illness was locked up underground for 3 days instead of receiving the proper care in April of this year. While locked up, he was tortured mentally and physically which heightened his mental unbalance. Once he was brought back up, the company’s security guards almost killed Enayet by choking him if it wasn’t for his screams which alerted the other workers who rescued him. Enayet is not the first or last worker to be tormented by working at RAMCO. A few years back, a suffering Indian worker who was promised he could return home waited for so long while the company forced him to continue working before he took his own life. RAMCO labelled him insane and covered up the story.
The protest on May 12th was mainly motivated by the fact that the workers now earn the equivalent of $112 of what used to be $350 since the company refuses to readjust the wages to the market price of the dollar. The new amount violates the workers’ contracts and is too low a salary for their labor and working hours. Despite the health-hazards associated with working during the pandemic, the workers have still been working, and are actually given more responsibilities now. Their managers have also confiscated their bank cards and money and are keeping them locked up for a month. If they refuse to work, they are locked up underground for 2-3 days and get an equivalent pay-cut. They met with a Mr. Ali who they said offered no solutions to any of the issues they brought up, from medical care to fair financial compensations. When they informed him that they can’t do all the extra work expected, he threatened them with deportation “when the airport opens.” At the same time, when asked to be sent home with settled accounts as stated in their contracts, Mr. Ali told them that none of the accounts regarding the workers have been settled. He further threatened “Labor boss Umar”, who represents the workers, with his termination.
The inhumane working conditions extend to their lack of days off unless they are travelling to their country (a duration of 2 months, but they were only given a month and 15 days) and their overcrowded living quarters which pose a constant threat. Additionally, the workers do not receive any health care from the company while being forced to work in high-risk unsanitary environments. The living and working conditions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and otherwise, the non-contractual salary-cuts, and the events mentioned previously must be treated as serious violations by RAMCO of international human rights, labor laws, and recent public health protocols.
The Lebanese government, which RAMCO claims has not paid its dues to the company for 7 months, is yet to address this pressing issue which threatens the livelihood of around 500 workers day after day. The National Federation of Employees and Workers’ Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL) published a press release on Wednesday the 13th condemning the actions of RAMCO, stressing on the fact that migrant workers are at higher risk during this economic recession, inflation period, and devaluation of the Lebanese Lira. The statement also addressed the issues of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon who suffer from the same financial strife and exploitation by their employers and the Kafala system. The Federation called upon the Ministry of Labor to protect the protestors instead of forcefully repressing them to serve the interests of the company owners.
The struggle of workers at RAMCO is only one reflection of the exploitative nature of the Kafala system which, due to the government’s negligence, has left migrant workers at the mercy of employers and recruitment agencies in the absence of any labor law that could protect them. Dismantling the Kafala system at the soonest opportunity is the only structural decision that will ensure the physical, mental, and financial safety of all migrant workers in Lebanon.