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The Migrant Workers

Migrant Workers in Lebanon
by Michael Young


  1. Preface
  2. Chapter two
  3. Chapter three
  4. Chapter four

General Conditions of
Migrant Workers in Lebanon

1- Overview

According to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, a migrant worker is "a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national."[1] The convention establishes sub-categories of migrant workers, including "frontier worker", "seasonal worker", "seafarers", "itinerant worker", "project-tied worker", "specified-employment worker", and "self-employed worker."
For the purposes of this study, we will not, and cannot, be exhaustive in our determination of migrant laborers. The largest group of migrant laborers in Lebanon is, not unnaturally, made up of Syrians, a reality born of geographical proximity, of the economic differences between Lebanon and Syria, and, most significantly, of the recent peculiarities of the Syrian-Lebanese political relationship.
Estimates for the number of Syrian laborers in Lebanon vary wildly, fluctuating between 200,000 and one million. The discrepancy - which cannot be explained merely as a result of the presence of seasonal migrant workers - is a result of the fact that no published official statistics on Syrian workers exist. In 1992, the Council for Development and Reconstruction estimated that some 200,000 Syrians were working in Lebanon.[2] According to estimates provided by the UNDP, in 1995 the figure had risen to some 450,000. The General Security service (Amn al-'Am)estimated that between the beginning of 1993 and the end of 1995, some 1.6 million Syrian workers entered Lebanon, though no accurate figures were provided for those exiting the country, suggesting that the real number of laborers in the country was lower.[3] Whatever the actual numbers, however, an overwhelming majority of Syrians work illegally in Lebanon. Indeed, in 1999 only 530 Syrians were issued with Lebanese work permits, a figure that is impertinently low.[4]
The parameters of this study must exclude Syrian laborers, in large part because of Syria's potent political weight in Lebanon. For better or worse, Lebanon has become an economic safety valve for Syria, a useful destination for a Syrian underclass that would otherwise find itself unemployed in a domestic economy in crisis. Lebanon is also a much-needed source of hard currency for Syria. Given these features, it is fair to say that Syria's stability is, in many respects, reliant on the constant and free flow of labor to, and capital from, Lebanon. At the same time cheap Syrian labor has been a necessary ingredient in Lebanon's reconstruction efforts, paradoxically decried yet welcomed by Lebanese employers and entrepreneurs who prefer to pay less.
This situation has effectively denied the Lebanese authorities the margin of maneuver in their policies necessary for a more measured absorption of Syrian laborers. The Lebanese, ever cognizant of Syria's interests, have accepted, indeed encouraged, ambiguity in the status of Syrian laborers. It is obvious that Lebanon is politically incapable of fundamentally modifying the status of Syrian migrant workers.
However, to be fair, this ambiguity has also benefited Lebanon. The Lebanese are most reluctant to grant legal status to Syrians, as this would impose on the state a series of reciprocal responsibilities. They understand that, in the event of legalization of the status of Syrians, Lebanon would find itself unable to control the inflow of laborers, while concomitantly being compelled to pay out the social compensation to which foreign laborers would be entitled. This situation appears to be the main obstacle to Lebanon's approving the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families. As one specialist on migrant workers put it, approval would be tantamount to "an anschluss."

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The first group of non-Arab Afro-Asian migrant workers to come to Lebanon were the Filipinos, in 1973.[5] Their numbers increased around 1980. A majority were females hired as domestic workers, though some were also taken on as nurses at the American University of Beirut hospital. Male migrant workers also came to Lebanon in those years to work in construction, as assistants in hospitals, or in maintenance jobs in buildings. Their numbers declined, however, as Syrians and Egyptians took over such jobs, so that today most Filipinos in Lebanon are female domestic workers.
Sri Lankan laborers began arriving in Lebanon during the war years, between 1975 and 1990. They were brought in by Lebanese recruiting agencies operating through contacts in Sri Lanka. By the early 1990s the agencies began also bringing mostly female domestic workers from Ethiopia and Madagascar. Only they, among the African migrant workers in Lebanon, are brought in by agencies. West Africans and Sudanese, many of whom are refugees from the predominantly Christian south of Sudan, usually enter Lebanon privately, and negotiate their contracts on an individual basis.

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3-Categories of foreign workers

Given the special status of Syrian laborers, the study will, instead, focus on a variety of other categories of laborers, principally those coming from Asia and Africa, as well as Egyptians and Sudanese, who make up the largest Arab contingents of migrant laborers.
Generally speaking, migrant laborers work in one of four very broad categories of activity, with further sub-divisions by country of origin.[6] The first category, which includes mostly workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, India, Madagascar, Ethiopia and West African countries, is domestic services, provided usually in households, but also in restaurants and other businesses. A majority of domestic workers are women: rough estimates suggest that up to 85% of non-Arab Afro-Asian migrant workers are females.[7]
A second category involves often menial jobs in commercial establishments, private buildings, or municipalities. Most commonly, workers in this category work as gas station attendants, janitors, concierges, cleaners, porters, or sanitary workers. A majority are from Egypt, Syria, and Sudan, and almost all are males.
A third category involves jobs in construction, farming, road construction, peddling, and shoe polishing, as well as car-repair and maintenance activities. It is in such jobs that the Syrians are most numerous, though one can also find many Egyptians.
Finally, a fourth category of migrant workers includes what can be called white-collar jobs, whether in private businesses, banking, the media, and other services. A majority of those in the category are from Western Europe, though some Arabs and other foreign nationals are also employed. Given the substantial difference between this category and the other three in terms of status, problems, and treatment, we will exclude white collar jobs from this study.
The conditions of workers vary depending on category of employment.[8] Domestic workers, whose fate will make up a substantial share of this study, often work under difficult circumstances, in large part because their activities are easily controlled by their employers or the agencies bringing them to Lebanon. One would be wrong in assuming that all, or perhaps even a majority, of employers mistreat their domestics. However, the power employers have to abuse their migrant domestic workers is great. The fact that the latter are mostly women only increases their vulnerability.
The second category of workers, because most are men, suffer less from direct abuse - though abuse of Syrian youths is reportedly frequent - and more from insalubrious work and living conditions, long hours, and a more ambiguous adversity: disdain. Most of the jobs in this category are considered of inferior status, affecting the way employees are regarded by society at large. There are some advantages, however, including the possibility of earning extra wages, particularly through tips, as well as more flexible time management.
Workers in the third category, particularly in construction and farming, suffer from the same difficulties as those in the second category, including poor work and living conditions and long work hours. However, the fact that many are Syrians, with potential ties to Syrian forces in Lebanon, has tended to improve their conditions somewhat. They tend to be freer in their movements, working either on construction projects limited in time, or as seasonal agricultural workers. They also tend to have fewer constraints on their salaries - short-term jobs offer a chance of earning relatively high returns - although these are, overall, quite low.
Finally, the fourth category provides an exception to the conditions outlined above. Most foreign white-collar workers are well-paid, enjoy above-average living conditions, and generally enjoy more clout when confronting obstacles and problems in the Lebanese system.

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4-How many migrant laborers?

Even barring the Syrians, there are no precise figures for the number of migrant laborers in Lebanon. Official figures are published only for those having work permits. Estimates for specific groups reveal a large discrepancy between official and unofficial figures. For example, those involved with Afro-Asian migrants recommend that official numbers be "multiplied by three" for a more accurate picture.[9] One difficulty is that many migrants enter Lebanon illegally, often through Syria. Another is that many of those who have entered Lebanon legally stay on without legal papers once their contracts expire.
The latest official figures for delivered work permits - taken from the Labor Ministry and published by the Central Administration for Statistics (CSA) - go up to December 1999.[10] We notice that among migrant workers from the Arab countries, the largest group of legal migrants in 1999 was the Egyptians, followed by Syrians, Sudanese, and Palestinians. The figures are as follows:

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5-Nationality 1998 1999
Egyptians 21,573 19,488
Syrians 744 530
Sudanese 608 495
Palestinians 396 350
Jordanians 282 230
Iraqis 85 103
Others 166 138
Total 23,854 21,334

The second category established by the Central Administration of Statistics is for non-Arab Asians. The figures reveal that migrant workers from Sri Lanka comprise the single largest chunk of legal migrants entering Lebanon.

Nationality 1998 1999
Sri Lanka 25,170 22,917
Indians 7,349 7,196
Filipinos 5,694 5,788
Other 3,830 4,348
Total 42,043 40,249

A third category established by the Central Administration of Statistics is Other Nationalities. Only non-Arab Africans need concern us in this category. Their numbers totaled 9,688 in 1998 and 13,528 in 1999, though no sub-divisions were worked out. It should be noted that the Ethiopian community, with between 11,000 and 17,000 (almost exclusively female) workers in Lebanon, is the second largest after the Sri Lankans, though the issuing of work permits does not reflect the real size of the community. The total number of Arab, non-Arab Asian, and non-Arab African workers in Lebanon was 70,476 in 1998 and 78,784 in 1999.
While these figures show only part of the picture - estimates of legal migrants - they do reveal several trends that it would be useful to point out. First, the proportion of legal Egyptian migrants in Lebanon is considerably higher than Syrians. One can only speculate as to the reasons why the authorities have allowed such a large number of Egyptians to enter the country legally. Part of the answer is that Egyptians can easily enter Lebanon illegally through Syria, since Egypt and Syria have an agreement allowing Egyptian migrant workers to enter Syria without a visa. This prompted the Lebanese and Egyptian authorities to agree in 1997 that Egyptian workers would be allowed to acquire legal status in Lebanon.[11]
One should also note that as Arabs, Egyptians suffer from relatively less discrimination than other non-Arab migrants. At the same time, there is a demand for Egyptians, who both accept to work in menial jobs and often provide a relative counterweight to the larger numbers of Syrians in Lebanon. The legalization of the status of Egyptians does not present the same social, legal, and political constraints as that of Syrians. It should be mentioned that there is at times reluctance to employ Syrians in certain sectors, because of Syria's political weight in Lebanon.
A second observable trend is that, of the non-Arab Asians working legally in Lebanon in 1999, a vast majority were from Sri Lanka, and, of these, we know, an overwhelming majority work were domestics. Exact figures for Sri Lankans are difficult to come by, though in January 1998 the Sri Lankan labor minister, John Senevirathna, estimated that some 80,000 of his compatriots were working in Lebanon, both legally and illegally, almost all of them females.[12] Sri Lankan embassy sources offered up an even higher figure of 100,000.[13]
A third trend we can briefly comment on is that in the third category of migrant workers, that of Other Nationalities, a significant majority - almost 88% - are non-Arab Africans, probably most of them from Ethiopia, but also from Madagascar and western African states. One can assume that a large number of these work either as domestics or in menial jobs in commercial establishments or private buildings, for example as janitors, concierges, cleaners, porters, or sanitary workers.

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6- Entering Lebanon: how and why?

Most migrant laborers entering Lebanon do so for economic reasons, to take advantage of the relatively higher salaries here relative to those in their countries, or even neighboring countries the Middle East. Some, however, come to Lebanon for other reasons - most Sudanese, for example, are predominantly Christian refugees fleeing fighting in the southern part of Sudan. As noted above in the case of the Egyptians, Lebanon was long a convenient landing spot because, in addition to the economic advantages of the country, it is easy to cross the Syrian-Lebanese border.
There are, generally speaking, three ways to enter Lebanon: Individually, through legally-mandated procedures for entry; through an employment agency, again following legal procedures. And, of course, illegally.
By law, foreign workers require a visa to enter Lebanon, and must be guaranteed by a Lebanese employer (kafil). This does not apply to Syrians, who enter Lebanon without a visa, and for a time did not apply to Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. A work permit is supplied by the Ministry of Labor, and migrant workers then use it to acquire a residence permit. More recently, employers have been instructed to inform the National Employment Agency, a branch of the Labor Ministry, of job offers to migrants so that the agency can determine, first, whether a qualified Lebanese is available for the job. For many categories of workers, however, the procedures are not always implemented.
A majority, though not all, migrant workers entering Lebanon as domestic workers do so through Lebanese agencies. These agencies have offices in the workers' country of origin, and usually have some sort of business relationship with individuals there. While the procedures adopted by the agencies will be examined in more detail in Chapter Two, formally they are as follows: migrant workers generally sign a contract with the agencies in their country of origin, outlining salary, duration of employment, numbers of days off, etc. The worker also pays a fee to the agency, often incurring a prohibitive debt.[14] The agency then arranges for the transportation and legal entry of the migrant worker to Lebanon.
Prior to this, however, the agency will also have negotiated with the potential employer, who must pay a high fee to the agency to bring the worker to Lebanon. Thus the agency stands at the nexus of the employer-employee transaction, overcharging the employer, while simultaneously imposing a debt on the worker. The contract signed between the agency and the worker in the country of origin is usually replaced upon arrival in Lebanon with a far more stringent contract. Because employers have been charged a high price by the agency, they are happy to protect their investment by modifying the clauses in a worker's contract to her or his disadvantage. Thus a hierarchy of abuse is put in place, the employee providing the weakest link.
The fact that many agencies began operating during the vacuum of the war years allowed them to impose a series of rules in what was, and remains, a largely unregulated field of activity. This has permitted abuse, facilitated by the links between certain agencies and influential figures. This despite the fact that, according to Lebanese law, migrant workers in possession of a work permit are entitled to enjoy full social rights, though, it must be added, they are not covered by labor law.[15]
For Arab migrants, illegal entry into Lebanon is most easily done through Syria. The Syrians have relations with several Arab countries facilitating the entry of their citizens into Syria. The main beneficiaries of such arrangements are Egyptian workers, although Sudanese have also entered Lebanon using the same route. The pattern is similar for all those involved: often, after various regional circumlocutions, the migrant worker will end up in Syria. For a fee, they will be taken across the border to Lebanon to be illegally hired for low salaries.[16]
It is in order to regulate the flow of Egyptian migrant workers that the labor ministers from Lebanon and Egypt met in Beirut in August 1997. At the time, according to some sources, some 9,000 Egyptians were residing illegally in Lebanon.[17] The ministers agreed to reactivate a 1993 labor cooperation agreement, and took measures to either legalize the presence of certain workers, or insure that those voluntarily leaving the country would not be arrested.[18]
These efforts was seen as one way of controlling the illegal entry of Egyptians into Lebanon. However, two problems were immediately evident, and served to partially undermine the intentions of both sides: First, many workers continued to enter illegally, because the Lebanese-Syrian border remains porous. And second, the Egyptians were encouraged to do this because many were unable to get a guarantor offering them the work necessary to acquire a work permit.

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7-The Lebanese response

There has long been an underlying tension between the organization representing Lebanese labor, the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (GCLW), and migrant workers. While this can be expected, given the that the GCLW is naturally inclined towards protecting Lebanese workers against lower-priced migrant competition, the situation is somewhat more complex.
On the day after his election, for the second time, as president of the GCLW in the summer of 1998, Elias Abu Rizq made a customary round of visits to Lebanese politicians and religious figures. The theme of his tour was the need to limit the entry of "foreign workers" in Lebanon. Yet it was obvious to many that Abu Rizq was not really suggesting a limitation on the number of, for example, foreign domestics in the country. Rather, his declamations were directed, quite clearly, at those Syrian and Egyptian laborers who compete in jobs held by Lebanese workers forming his electoral base. At a more general level, Abu Rizq was also employing an always popular (though coded) message of opposition to the Syrian presence, though probably less for political reasons than to consolidate his own power base, which sees the easy movement of Syrian workers to and from Lebanon as a fundamental, yet unassailable, threat.
There is a widespread view that migrant workers are employed in jobs the Lebanese refuse to do.[19] This is partly true, though the real picture is more complicated. There are a series of considerations on the demand side that make foreign laborers preferable to locals. Migrant laborers are willing to work longer hours for lower salaries in worse conditions than most Lebanese. While some measures have been taken to provide insurance to some categories of migrants, foreign workers often have no social coverage, providing them with a comparative advantage in terms of salaries. Similarly, because many migrants work in a legal limbo, they are often unable to complain to the Lebanese authorities. That means that they can be overworked and summarily dismissed if they protest. The notion of reciprocal responsibilities between migrant workers and employers is often lacking. Because of the large number of workers, the market is heavily tilted in favor of employers.
There is anecdotal evidence suggesting discriminatory behavior in the hiring of locals by Lebanese employers. In other words, the assumption that Lebanese will not do the kind of jobs migrant workers will do is not invariably true. At one organization - Sukleen, the private company responsible for rubbish collection in Lebanon - there are examples of Lebanese workers being barred from applying for low-level positions, such a street cleaners. The company is not doing this to protect the status of Lebanese males, but probably to ensure that it has a wider margin of maneuver to treat workers as it pleases, including firing them when needed, and reducing to a minimum its responsibilities in case of on-the-job injury.
Though most migrant workers are said to work in menial jobs the Lebanese reject, there is nothing to prove how true this assessment is, at least for certain categories of workers. Indeed, the average salaries offered for certain categories of jobs - though not all - would be unacceptable to most Lebanese, who have to pay for a variety of services migrant laborers often dispense with - rent, education of children, social security, etc. In contrast, migrants come from countries where costs are considerably lower, and therefore where such expenses are considerably lower.
The impact of migrant workers on domestic unemployment is difficult to gauge. For one thing, the fact that most foreign workers are Syrian has made a detailed investigation of the phenomenon politically sensitive. There are no figures for unemployment by sector, and even then it is unclear to what extent Lebanese would fill jobs vacated by migrant workers. The conventional wisdom - and that is all that seems available at present - is that the presence of migrant workers does have a certain negative impact on unemployment, particularly as regards the fate of lower-income Lebanese, but that this does not pose a major national problem.
Perhaps. Yet such a view is incomplete, since migrant laborers, particularly Syrians, are entering sectors hitherto closed to them, such as industry, transport, small business, and services.[20] In theory, it is up to the labor ministry to ensure that unfair competition between Lebanese and foreign workers does not occur. However, given the bureaucratic chaos that often exists in Lebanon, firms often manage to get away with hiring cheap foreign labor without the ministry knowing it.
Since this paper does not cover Syrian labor, the best that can be said is that a substantial share of jobs for which non-Syrian migrant workers - particularly those from Asia and Africa - are hired, are those which most Lebanese do not engage in, or could not afford to engage in at market rates. And here we are speaking essentially, though not exclusively, of domestic workers. Yet even this general statement must be qualified in the case of the Egyptians. Clearly, further research, by economic sector, is required to see how unemployment is affected by migrant labor.

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