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The Migrant Workers

Migrant Workers in Lebanon
by Michael Young

  1. Preface:

  2. Chapter one
  3. Chapter two
  4. Chapter three
  5. Chapter four


1-Migrant Workers in Perspective

The objective of this study is to examine the conditions of migrant workers in Lebanon, their roles, problems, networks, and future. It is inevitable that such a study will, in many respects, say as much about Lebanese society, particularly postwar society, as it will about the migrant workers themselves, who have flocked to Lebanon in the hundreds of thousands since war's end in 1990.
While the subject is complex, the aim of the study is fairly simple: To report on a social phenomenon that has gained little attention in Lebanon, and yet which is ever-present in the daily lives of the Lebanese. For one cannot avoid seeing, in even the most remote of mountain villages, migrant laborers - of which we will selectively exclude the estimated hundreds of thousands of Syrian laborers, whose status, shaped by the peculiarities of the Lebanese-Syrian relationship, falls outside the parameters which will be set in this study.
Several general statements can be made concerning migrant laborers. From a Lebanese perspective, there appear to have been two major incentives allowing the increase in the number of foreign migrants entering Lebanon, whether legally or illegally, over the years: First, the ability to attract cheap foreign labor to help in the various domains of economic activity where the hiring of Lebanese was expensive, difficult, or undesirable. So, for example, a large number of Egyptians are employed in construction or in odd jobs - whether as gas station attendants, concierges in buildings, rubbish collectors, and street cleaners. Asian and African women, in contrast, provide the bulk of domestic workers, replacing Lebanese, Syrian, and Egyptian women who traditionally took on such roles.
The availability of cheap foreign labor was, and remains, a particularly profitable, if controversial, phenomenon at a time when Lebanon is involved in a costly (and faltering) reconstruction effort. However, the motives for hiring migrants are not solely economic: Lebanese employers find an advantage in hiring migrants because of the ease with which they can be controlled, dismissed, and - because of their large numbers - replaced in case of dissent. One of the enduring themes of this study will be that migrant laborers in Lebanon form a vulnerable group, whose rights are often ignored, in contravention to international conventions and standards.
A second motivation for hiring foreign laborers - and more specifically domestic workers, who form a substantial share of the migrant labor force - is status. One of the curious features of the postwar environment is the ease with which families, even those with limited incomes, have been able to hire domestics - from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Ethiopia, and other countries - at competitive rates. What is flagrant, however, is that this impulse has often seemed less necessary than advantageous socially, in a society in which social status during the war years was severely shaken up. Put bluntly: low-cost migrants are often instruments for the social enhancement of many Lebanese who could not, in different circumstances, enjoy the luxury of domestic help.
This has, at times, come at an odious price: the aspiration for status, and the rigid hierarchical relationships that have ensued, have created a misguided sense of possession, where migrants have, at times, been treated as little better than property. This has put Lebanon in an unfortunate spotlight as a country facilitating, or at least ignoring, the worst aspects of what is familiarly known as "the new slavery". As with more classical slavery, certain elements of racism have also been evident in relationships between Lebanese and migrant laborers, particularly those arriving from Asia or Africa. Having said this, racism is hardly a sufficient, let alone an accurate, explanation for what is going on.
The relationship between migrant laborers and their Lebanese employers has been adversely affected by those very impulses driving migrants to Lebanon. Amplifying the ambient disdain and frequent denial of basic human rights to migrants has been the fact that migrant laborers come to Lebanon with marked disadvantages: Virtually all are poor and in need of work, which has augmented their dependency on employers. Where there has been dependency, power relationships have naturally spawned, but with a critical addition: These have not always been restrained by rules and regulations preventing abuse, though things are gradually changing for the better in Lebanon.
Moreover, this relationship of dependency has, at various times, been explicitly or implicitly reinforced by the behavior of the Lebanese administrative, security and, at times, judicial authorities. Evenhandedness before the law and due process still are exceptions for many migrant laborers. This general tendency has, in turn, encouraged mistreatment, whether on the part of agencies importing migrant laborers or employers indifferent to the work conditions and well-being of their migrant employees.

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2-Organization of the study:

The study will be divided into four chapters, in addition to annexes. The first chapter will seek to present a general overview of migrant laborers: who they are; their estimated numbers; categories of employment; and their reasons for coming to Lebanon. The section will also provide a brief historical overview of labor migration to Lebanon and define migrant workers' legal status in light of Lebanese law and international conventions protecting their rights. The chapter will close with an assessment of the 'new slavery'.
The second chapter will draw on the norms set out in the first chapter and investigate in detail the problems of migrant laborers in Lebanon. This will mean looking at human rights abuses, and, more specifically, the often troubled relationships between laborers and employers and between laborers and the Lebanese state. The section will describe specific incidents to illustrate these problems.
The third chapter will look at the networks created by and for migrant laborers. These will include relief and assistance networks, migrant social associations - whether formal or informal - and other forms of services. The section will also investigate the relations between migrant laborers and their national embassies - when applicable - relations often as uneasy as those between the Lebanese authorities and the laborers.
The fourth and final chapter will assess the situation of migrant workers in light of the first three chapters and outline prospects. The section will be more speculative than the others, and will seek to gauge whether public awareness of the problems of migrant laborers is helping to improve their lot. Possible avenues - albeit general ones - for the improvement of the conditions of migrant laborers will also be explored.
The annexes will reproduce relevant documents - including the text of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families - and contact information for those networks helping migrant workers.

Michael Young

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