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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

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8-Foreign remittances

In considering the rapport between migrant and Lebanese labor, one of the most controversial issues is that of remittances. Those who oppose the presence of migrant workers - and by this they usually mean Syrian laborers - point to the nefarious effects of the outflow of hard currency from the Lebanese economy. It is, again, virtually impossible to measure the losses and gains from the presence of migrant laborers. As indicated earlier, there is no clear figure for the numbers of foreign laborers in Lebanon, given the existence of an open border with Syria. Moreover, there are no reliable means to measure capital outflows, since laborers almost never get paid through the banking system.
Any effort to calculate the costs and benefits of migrant laborers must take into consideration two additional factors: First, the savings to the economy from the employment of lower-paid migrants; and, second, the growth of certain sectors, particularly construction, because of migrants' low salaries. These are hardly negligible details in an economy which is still emerging from the war years.
While there are no reliable figures, there have been estimates of capital outflows due to migrant laborers. These figures take into consideration Syrian laborers, however. According to the journalist Michel Morqos, writing in Al-Nahar in 1998, some $4.2bn were being set abroad by migrant laborers annually.[21] Morqos presented no methodology explaining how such a figure was reached, and it must be treated with some caution. Even when Syrians are taken into consideration, the figure may be too high. For example, estimating a relatively high average monthly salary of some $250, Morqos's figure would mean that 1.4 million foreign laborers reside in Lebanon all year around. This seems, by most estimates, high. The figure seems all the more improbable in that part of a laborer's salary - perhaps up to $50 per month in the case of Syrians, and considerably more in the case of many Asians - goes to paying for local necessities. Having said this, remittances must almost certainly be estimated in the billions of dollars - as opposed to hundreds of millions of dollars - a most significant sum in an economy whose GDP was estimated in 1999 at $16bn. More interesting is the fact that Morqos's figure reveals how inexact a science is the estimate of remittances, and to what imprecise calculations one must resort to question such figures.
The absence of accurate figures for migrant workers and their remittances, as well as nonexistent information as to how the workers' presence impacts on employment, reflects the profound inability of the Lebanese state to publish useful statistics. This problem is a recurring one when it comes to macro-economic figures: Lebanon does not even have an accurate idea of its GDP. To this inability must be added a conscious effort to skirt the particularly sensitive issue of Syrian laborers in Lebanon, with all its political overtones.
For the moment, several very general conclusions can be drawn: First, Afro-Asian migrant laborers do not appear to be the main target of demands by Lebanese labor that the numbers of foreign laborers be reduced. Second, it appears that migrant laborers, mainly Syrians, but also Egyptians and other Africans, are moving into sectors in which they were previously not employed. Thus the assumption that most migrants work in jobs the Lebanese avoid appears to be increasingly inaccurate. And third, while there are no precise figures for the value of foreign remittances, they must certainly be estimated in the billions of dollars. Yet, looking at the other side of the coin, cheap migrant labor has been very useful in an economy emerging from war.

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9-The legal framework

Migrant workers are not governed by Lebanese labor law. Their status is governed by a contract between the worker and the employer. As we shall see in Chapter Two, this is a source of problems for workers, who are often made to sign disadvantageous agreements. The fact that migrant workers are not governed by labor law means that they are denied a right to earn Lebanon's minimal salary, that a maximal number of working hours is not set, that they have no guaranteed time off or vacation, that they are generally denied accident or end-of-work compensation, and that they are barred from joining labor unions.[22]
In general, migrant workers from countries which supply domestic workers to Lebanon are categorized as 'domestic workers' (khadim manzili) by the authorities, even if they are in another line of work. While this does, to an extent, reflect an inherent prejudice in the way the Lebanese deal with migrant workers, it does have a pragmatic justification: it is far easier for an employer or an agency to get a work permit for a domestic worker than for other categories of employees.[23]
The legal conditions for a work permit are generally the following: The employer or agency must place a specified sum - L£1,500,000 - at the Housing Loan Bank as a deposit, which is recuperated upon termination of the worker's contract. A specified sum - around L£500,000 - must be paid annually to the labor ministry for a work permit, and a similar sum paid to the General Security service for a residency permit. A notarized contract between the parties is also necessary for a work permit. However, what constitutes a contract varies widely. In many cases, it is merely a few lines written on a piece of paper outlining reciprocal conditions of work. There is no specific format imposed by the authorities.

Incarceration and expulsion
While migrant workers are not covered by Lebanese labor law, they are protected by, and subject to, the provisions of criminal law. It is a mistake to confuse a migrant's illegal status with a criminal offense. All too often, however, the Lebanese authorities have tended to blend the two into one.
What are the rights of illegal migrants? We will discuss the problems of implementation of the law in the following chapter. However, it should be noted here that detained illegal migrants must in no way be legally considered criminals. According to Lebanese law, a foreigner who is in Lebanon illegally can only be expelled from the country upon the decision of a tribunal.[24] In other words, the General Security service's frequent resort to administrative expulsion is prohibited, except when the presence of an illegal migrant is a threat to public security.
Moreover, according to a July 1962 law, foreigners illegally in Lebanon can only be detained at the General Security service prison after a tribunal has decreed their decision, and then only for the limited time necessary to implement the expulsion. While the law does allow the authorities, following an identity check, to detain illegal migrants prior to their appearance before the courts, the latter cannot be incarcerated at the General Security service headquarters. And Article 89 of the criminal code specifically notes that foreigners who have been expelled must depart by their own means.
These regulations have been all but abandoned in the recent past. Part of the reason is the existence of a legal vacuum as regards detention facilities. Those who are incarcerated for illegal residence are placed in special detention facilities, or in areas specially allocated for them if they are in a prison. In the past years, the General Security service building was used as a leading facility to house prisoners. However, the law does not make provision for detention facilities for illegal migrants. Law number 14310 of 1949 specifically spells out which facilities are prisons, and those presently used for the detention of migrants are, naturally, not listed. That is why illegal migrants are, effectively, detained in buildings having no legal sanction as places of incarceration, and often in deplorable conditions.[25]
As shown above, the spirit of the laws on expulsion and incarceration go in the direction of preserving the rights of the accused, while allowing him or her relative freedom of movement until a decision is taken by a court. We shall see that as with many other laws, however, there is a considerable difference between both the letter and spirit of laws on the one hand, and its actual implementation on the other.

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10-The International Convention

As we discuss the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers (henceforth CPRMW), it must be understood that Lebanon will probably not ratify the instrument. Nor for that matter has Lebanon ratified previous International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on migrant laborers.
There are two principle reasons for this, one political, the other philosophical. The first reason is that ratification of the CPRMW would grant a legal, and to an extent political, status to several hundred thousand Syrian workers in Lebanon. Given Syria's influence over Lebanese affairs, there is an abiding, if not wholly justified, fear that once provided with a legal status Syrian laborers may be used as a means of pressure by their government. The Syrian government, for practical reasons, appears to understand Lebanese sensibilities. A legal status would mean providing Syrians with social coverage, something Lebanese employers would very much resent. At the same time, the Syrian authorities probably see no advantage in forcing a controversial issue which would lead to a cutback in the hiring of Syrian labor, and therefore a reduction in much-needed hard currency remittances.
Philosophically, Lebanon has avoided giving migrant laborers a status because it seems to contradict the country's laissez faire principles. With an ostensibly free-market economy and a relatively pluralistic political system, Lebanon has, since Independence, been open to the outside. However, as a small country, it has also been vulnerable to outside influences. That is why it has been taken on principle that Lebanon should avoid granting migrants, whether laborers or refugees, any type of internationally-protected status. By avoiding granting a definite status to migrant workers, the Lebanese have arrogated to themselves a margin of maneuver in the event migrants have to be dealt with in a manner deemed consistent with the 'national interest.' While the human rights implications of this must be considered, so too must be the political and philosophical impact of granting migrant workers a status in accordance with the CPRMW. An optimal solution to the problem of migrant labor in Lebanon must weigh both considerations.
As with many international treaties, the CPRMW would perhaps be best used as a benchmark against which Lebanon's behavior can be compared, even though it is not a signatory. This would be particularly relevant as regards its human rights aspects. Indeed, many treaties tend to take on a legitimacy and dynamism of their own with time, compelling states to adopt a particular form of behavior, even if they are not formally obliged to do so. Treaties tend to present standards, and Lebanon has already been publicly judged poorly - particularly in its treatment of Afro-Asian migrants - for its departure from what are considered international standards of behavior.[26] In what follows, we will present the international context for the preparation of the CPRMW, using this to move on to a discussion of regional and international trends in labor migration.

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11-Towards the CPRMW

The UN General Assembly adopted the CPRMW in 1990. The document was "inspired by existing legally binding agreements, by United Nations human rights studies, by the conclusions and recommendations of meetings of experts, and by the debates and resolutions on the migrant worker question in United Nations bodies over the [previous] two decades."[27]
Behind the CPRMW was recognition that there are more migrant workers today than at any other time in history. In 1949, the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted the Migration for Employment Convention. As noted in a 1975 ILO convention providing supplementary provisions to the 1949 convention, the objectives in the 1949 convention were: "the regulation of the recruitment, introduction and placing of migrant workers, the provision of accurate information relating to migration, the minimum conditions to be enjoyed by migrants in transit and on arrival, the adoption of an active employment policy and international collaboration in these matters." [28]
Notably, the 1949 convention, in its Article 6, specifically calls the signatory state to provide migrant workers with "treatment no less favorable than that which it applies to its own nationals in respect to" such things as the applications of laws or regulations, remuneration, membership in trade unions, accommodation, social security, etc. It also calls on signatories to avoid discrimination on the basis of nationality, race, religion, or sex.
In 1975, as noted above, supplementary provisions were added to the 1949 convention.[29] The 1975 convention calls on states to respect the basic human rights of migrant workers, and to prevent clandestine migration and manpower trafficking activities.[30] Clandestine migration was seen as a particularly acute problem at the beginning of the 1970s, and this was what brought the issue of migrant workers to the attention of the UN. The convention also called once again on states to insure equality of treatment of migrant workers with respect to employment, social security, trade union activity, and cultural rights.
Because of increasing UN interest in migrant labor at the beginning of the 1970s, a propitious climate was created for the further regularization of the status, conditions, and treatment of migrant workers. This culminated in 1978, at the first World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, with a call for the preparation of an international convention on the protection of migrant workers. In 1980 a working group was established to prepare such a document, and international bodies, including the UN Commission on Human Rights, the ILO, UNESCO, and the World Health Organization, were invited to participate. In 1990 the group finished its work and presented the draft CPRMW. It was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 18, 1990, and will enter into force upon ratification by or accession of twenty states.
The Preamble of the CPRMW is useful both as an introduction to the background of the convention and as a reflection of the evolving international attitude towards the global movement of migrant workers. It begins by taking into consideration the principles embodied in the UN's basic instruments covering human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The CPRMW also takes into account principles and standards set forth in a variety of relevant instruments, particularly those of the ILO - including the 1949 and 1975 conventions on migrant labor. It reaffirms principles contained in UNESCO's Convention against Discrimination in Education, and recalls various other conventions, including the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Preamble also mentions recognition of work done by the various bodies of the UN on migrant labor, as it does progress by individual states, whether on a regional or bilateral basis, on the protection of the rights of migrant workers.
After noting the increasing importance of the migrant labor phenomenon, the Preamble notes the importance of establishing "norms which may contribute to the harmonization of the attitudes of States through the acceptance of basic principles concerning the treatment of migrant workers and members of their families." Underlying this is an admission that the rights of migrant workers and their families have not been sufficiently recognized, and therefore require international protection.
Moreover, the Preamble identifies as a major problem the illegal trafficking in and clandestine movements of migrant workers, adding that this has exacerbated the human problems involved in migration. In particular, the Preamble remarks, non-documented and irregular workers "are frequently employed under less favorable conditions of work than other workers." Therefore, it is assumed that recognition of the human rights of migrant workers will discourage the recourse to illegal migrant laborers.
With these general principles stated, we can move on to a more detailed discussion of migrant labor trends. The CPRMW has, naturally, not developed in a vacuum. In the following section we will briefly describe the regional and international contexts affecting the fate of migrant workers. In particular, we will look at a concept which has gained increasing attention of late: the 'new slavery'.

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12-Regional trends

The arrival of migrant laborers to Lebanon reflects not only domestic needs, but a region-wide phenomenon of labor mobility that has reflected economic developments for over a century. The Middle East has traditionally been an area of emigration, particularly at the beginning of the 20th century when the destinations were the Americas, Africa, and Europe. By the 1970s, however, when the Middle East was affected by the oil boom, inter-Arab and Asian-Gulf migration expanded dramatically.[31] Mostly male workers headed for oil-producing countries, while Asians, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, "competed for menial jobs in the Gulf."[32]
Things began changing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As the anthropologist David McMurray has noted, three upheavals in particular affected trends in regional migration: a drop in oil prices, the Gulf War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This led to the increasing participation of women in migration, and the expansion of replacement migration, defined as "the wholesale replacement of one national group of workers by another."[33]
The collapse of the USSR created a large pool of unemployed women, hundreds of thousands of whom were compelled to travel abroad to make a living. A substantial number of those who traveled to the Middle East - often imported by organized crime organizations - ended up as sex workers. Yet as McMurray notes, the large increase in the arrival to the region of Asian female domestic workers has been no less a spectacular example of the 'feminization' of migration. Moreover, it has led to profound transformations within the migrants' societies, with women having a greater say in spending decisions.
The Gulf War led to a major, and much-publicized, example of replacement migration. Kuwait, having rid itself of the Iraqi occupation, promptly expelled an estimated 350,000 Palestinians and Jordanians suspected of sympathizing with the Iraqi regime. Similarly, Saudi Arabia used the war as an excuse to expel some 800,000 Yemenis.[34] While the Palestinians, Jordanians, and Yemenis were ostensibly paying the price for their leaderships' political decisions, McMurray argued that replacement migration has "usually stemmed from a general unease about foreign laborer's growing sense of entitlement, particularly Arab-origin immigrant laborers."
This was particularly evident in Kuwait, where Arab immigrants were unhappy at what they perceived to be an absence of social rights. In the Gulf in general (as in Lebanon, though less severely), migrant workers are hemmed in by the Kafala system, which requires that a local sponsor a migrant worker for the duration of a contract. This not only makes workers highly dependent on local employers, who can easily abuse their position, it makes it difficult for workers to leave their jobs.[35]
The transfer of workers out of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia was followed by similar moves in Libya in 1995, when some 30,000 Palestinians were expelled. In Israel something similar has happened: Palestinians have been made to pay the price for the growing wariness of Israelis with the large mass of Arab workers in their midst. By 1996, some 300,000 workers, mostly from Asia and Eastern Europe, had replaced Palestinians in Israel, exacerbating the already difficult economic situation of Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza.
Both trends - the increasing 'feminization' of migrant labor, and the expansion of replacement migration - have been evident in Lebanon. For several years women from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have been working in bars as dancers, waitresses, and sometime as prostitutes. However, it is the presence of a large number of Asian women, mostly from non-Arab African and Asian countries, that has been particularly evident. A majority of non-Arab migrant laborers are women, a trend that is bound to increase as the Lebanese authorities impose further restrictions on the arrival of non-Arab Afro-Asian males. Of course, the irony is that a vast majority of the migrant work force is Syrian, and male, which tends to limit somewhat the value of the government's desire to limit the number of non-Arab males.
As for replacement migration, the situation is somewhat more complex. The exceptional increase in non-Arab Afro-Asian women migrants is a relatively recent phenomenon. In part, perhaps, it has to do with a postwar appetite for the status accompanying the hiring of low-priced domestics. It is probably also a subtle result of politics, since Afro-Asians have essentially taken on roles previously played by Syrian and Egyptian women. Because of the new relationships which developed during the war, particularly regarding Syria, the desire to hire Syrians has abated somewhat.
In terms of other types of employment, the impact of replacement migration has been less clear. Even before the war Syrian laborers were active in construction, for example. However, migrants' entry into certain types of sectors - services, transport, and industry - is a new phenomenon, suggesting that some employers prefer to replace locals with lower-priced, easier-to-manage migrants. At the same time, Lebanese law, in order to protect local laborers, prohibits the practice, even if some employers get away with it.

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13-The 'new slavery'

The vulnerabilities of migrant laborers in Lebanon should be seen against the backdrop of international and regional developments. The phenomenon of labor migration is obviously not limited to Lebanon, nor are the problems of migrant laborers exclusively Lebanese concoctions. In terms of their human rights, millions of laborers worldwide, migrants and otherwise, live and work in conditions of virtual enslavement. The phenomenon has become so widespread that it has spawned an increasingly familiar term: the 'new slavery.'
As the British sociologist Kevin Bales has noted, there is satisfaction internationally that slavery - defined as 'the legal ownership of one person by another' - is no longer existent. However, he adds, this misses the point, since the key to slavery is not ownership "but control through violence," which continues unabated.[36] Moreover, the 'new slaves' are considerably cheaper than their legally-owned predecessors, given "the large numbers of vulnerable people and the low cost of violence."
Indeed, the 'new slavery' is usually characterized by the following: An avoidance of legal ownership; low purchase cost; high profits; a surplus of potential 'slaves'; a short-term relationship between employer and 'slave'; easy disposability; and a relative lack of importance as regards ethnic differences.[37] All of these factors were precisely the opposite under the traditional form of slavery.
It is difficult to measure the phenomenon of the 'new slavery' worldwide, in large part because it is largely invisible. According to the United Nations there are some 200 million individuals who are enslaved in some form, including domestic slaves, child laborers, forced laborers, sex slaves, and those in debt bondage.[38] Bales, in contrast, focuses solely on bonded slaves, noting that there are an estimated 27 million worldwide, generating a yearly profit of $13bn.
The size of the phenomenon has been well beyond the control of the UN. In 1974 the organization created a working group on slavery - within the framework of the Human Rights Commission - which meets once a year. However, the working group has no permanent staff, and within the international body, writes Bales, "the issue of slavery unaccountably languishes."[39]
Similarly, specialized organizations such as Anti-Slavery International, founded in 1839, and the French Comité Contre L'esclavage Moderne are far too small. The best they can do is take up individual cases and work towards making people more conscious of the 'new slavery' phenomenon. Why this international indifference? Bales argues that "Slavery escapes our notice because it is worth so little. If western jobs were threatened, if multinationals were undercut by slave-based enterprises, the alarms would sound. Instead there is the silence of the complicit."
Indeed one of the complicating factors in circumventing the 'new slavery' is the fact that countries are often unwilling to recognize, let alone address, the issue of modern enslavement. In many countries legislation exists to prevent abuse, but is not implemented. This applies both in developed as underdeveloped countries, even if the legislative framework in the former provides workers with greater possibilities for legal recourse.
The same situation exists in Lebanon. As we shall see, a legal framework does exist to protect the human rights of migrant workers and ensure that they are not submitted to modern forms of slavery. However, it is in the interaction between migrants on the one hand, and agencies, employers, and the authorities on the other that maltreatment and abuse often occurs.

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1. For a text of the convention, see Annex One, or United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Fact Sheet No. 24 (which provides background to the convention).
2. For this and subsequent figures on Syrian laborers, see the section on foreign labor in, "A Profile of Sustainable Human Development in Lebanon", United Nations Development Programme, January 1997. The relevant page of the report can be accessed on Internet at www.undp.org.lb/Reports/hdr97/chapter3D.htm.
3. Ibid.
4. See Work Permits, in Central Administration of Statistics, Monthly Bulletin. On Internet, access www.cas.gov.lb.
5. This and subsequent information in the section is taken from an unpublished report in French by Father Martin McDermott, based on an October 1998 report to the Committee on Pastoral Care of Afro-Asian Workers, of which McDermott is coordinator. See, also, L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut), February 15, 2000, which is largely based on McDermott's research.
6. The categories are drawn from personal observation and the UNDP's "A Profile of Sustainable Human Development in Lebanon", op. cit.
7. Interview with Father Martin McDermott, February 8, 2000.
8. The conditions are drawn, again, from "A Profile of Sustainable Human Development in Lebanon" and personal observation, op. cit.
9. Interview with Father Martin McDermott, op. cit. Father Salim Rizkallah, a Capuchin priest with much experience working with migrant workers, estimates non-Arab Afro-Asians as follows: 120,000 Sri Lankans; 18,000 Filipinos; 17,000 Ethiopians; 5,000 Eritreans; 5,000 Nigerians; and 3,000 Ghanaians. The figures are rough estimates and should be taken with some caution. For example, the lawyer Roger Hanna, who works with the Ethiopian Consulate, estimates the number of Ethiopians at around 11,000.
10. See Work Permits, in Central Administration of Statistics, Monthly Bulletin, op. cit.
11. See, for example, L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut), August 14, 1997. For more details, see below.
12. See the Daily Star (Beirut), January 30, 1999.
13. See the Daily Star (Beirut), September 2, 1998.
14. See Reem Haddad, "A Modern-Day 'Slave Trade': Sri Lankan Workers in Lebanon," Middle East Report, Summer 1999, pp. 39-41.
15. See, for example, Foreign Labor in "A Profile of Sustainable Human Development in Lebanon", op. cit.
16. According to Father Martin McDermott, Sudanese nationals would be required to pay a $200 fee to middlemen for entry into Lebanon. See also the Daily Star, January 28, 1997.
17. See L'Orient-Le Jour, August 14, 1997.
18. Ibid.
19. See Foreign Labor in "A Profile of Sustainable Human Development in Lebanon", op. cit.
20. See, for example, Michel Morqos, "Al-u'maal al-ajanib yuhawwilun $4.2 milyaraat dollaran sanawiyan il al-kharij," in Al-Nahar, January 3, 1998.
21. See, ibid.
22. Interview with the lawyer Mirella Abdel Sater, May 10, 2000.
23. Ibid. According to Mirella Abdel Sater, this even applies to employees at the Sri Lankan embassy, who do not have the status of diplomats.
24. This and the following information is from ibid., and from the interview with Mirella Abdel Sater, op. cit.
25. See Mirella Abdel Sater, "Les conditions de détention et d'éxpulsion des travailleurs étrangers au Liban", prepared for a Caritas seminar entitled: Refugees, Migrants and Displaced: Realities and Responses, February 11, 1998.
26. See, for example, a report prepared by the UN's Human Rights Committee following an April 7, 1997 meeting on Lebanon's implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Document CCPR/C/79/Add.77.
27. This and subsequent information on the evolution of the CPRMW is taken from United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Fact Sheet No. 24 (with the convention as its annex). Or, using Internet, one can access www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/m_mwcpre.htm.
28. For a text of the convention, see International Labor Organization: C97 Migration for Employment Convention (Revised), 1949. Through Internet, one can access the ILO site at www.ilolex.ilo.ch.
29. For a text of the 1975 convention, see International Labor Organization: C143 Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975.
30. See United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Fact Sheet No. 24, op. cit.
31. Most of the information in this section is drawn from David McMurray, "Recent Trends in Middle East Migration", in Middle East Report, Spring 1999, pp.16-19.
32. Ibid, page 16.
33. Ibid, page 17.
34. Ibid, page 18.
35. See "Keeping Migrant Workers in Check: The Kafala System in the Gulf", Middle East Report, Summer 1999, pp.20-22.
36. See Kevin Bales, "Throwaway People", in the bimonthly Index on Censorship, No. 1, 2000, pp.36-45. The cover story of the issue is the 'new slavery'.
37. Ibid.
38. The figure is cited in Thierry Parisot, "Quand l'immigration tourne à l'esclavage", Le Monde diplomatique, June 1998, pp.20-21. Parisot notes that the figure is an estimate made by several non-governmental organizations, and is used in documents of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
39. See Bales, op. cit., page 42.

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