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Lebanon and Migrant Workers
NGO and Migrant Workers
Reports & Studies
Press Review

The Migrant Workers

Migrant Workers in Lebanon
by Michael Young


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

The Problems of Migrant Workers in Lebanon

1- Introduction

There is a widespread, though incomplete, assumption that the main difficulties migrant workers have is with their employers. That is only partly true. In analyzing the problems of migrant workers it is necessary to look at the phenomenon at four levels: in the relationship between migrant workers and the agencies importing them to Lebanon; in that between migrant workers and their employers; in that between migrant workers and the Lebanese state; and in relation to the problems they face in Lebanese society. Each relationship has its peculiarity, often with profound implications for human rights. Anecdotal material on the problems facing migrant workers, in particular those from non-Arab countries in Asia and Africa, is vast, the result of a growing realization in Lebanon that their predicament in the country is far from satisfactory.

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2-Agencies and migrant workers

It is non-Arab Afro-Asian migrant workers who arrive in Lebanon by way of employment agencies, and most come as domestic workers. That is because the agencies, among their several functions, serve as indispensable links with those faraway African and Asian countries whose migrant workers would not otherwise find it easy, or even possible, to enter Lebanon.
Historically, the first non-Arab Afro-Asian domestics to arrive in Lebanon were Sri Lankans and Filipinos. However, in the past seven years Lebanese employment agencies have widened their scope of operations to include Madagascar and Ethiopia.[1] Of those from African countries, only the Ethiopians, however, arrive through agencies: Sudanese and West Africans generally arrive alone, or are hired directly by employers.
While many agencies have developed a bad reputation, two things must be kept in mind: first, that several countries, including Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and, more recently, Ethiopia, have started reforming the process of sending workers to Lebanon.[2] This has meant, at home, enforcing procedures to ensure that abuse is kept to a minimum, whether in the formulation of contracts or, even, in the choice of an employer. Though the we will describe the continuing problems of migrant workers, we must keep in mind that the process is a dynamic one. Both Lebanon and countries sending migrant workers are seeking out ways to more adequately regulate the situation of migrants, as it is to their mutual advantage.
And second - and conversely - it should be mentioned that the problems linked to migrant workers, while mainly provoked in Lebanon, have their roots in countries from where migrant workers originate. In other words, many of the more abusive networks sending workers to Lebanon are the fruit of a collaboration between Lebanese businessmen and locals. This is hardly to diminish the responsibility of the Lebanese agencies, but to share this responsibility somewhat. It is important to realize that any reform of the migration process involves measures that must be taken both in the workers' country of origin as well as in Lebanon. As indicated above, such a process has already begun in some countries.
Given their indispensability, the agencies have power over both employers and workers, allowing them to elicit very high rates from the former, while insuring, on behalf of employers, that the workers are provided with a bare minimum. Significantly, the activities of agencies go largely unregulated. The fact that the agencies were mostly established during the war years, when state authority was minimal, made easier the absence of state supervision over their affairs once the war ended. Nor has the suspected relationship between some agencies and influential political figures made it easy to impose such a supervisory authority. That is why, in many respects, it is the agencies who derive the greatest advantage from the quadrilateral relationship between them, migrant workers, employers, and the state.
The procedure for an agency's bringing a non-Arab African or Asian worker to Lebanon is relatively simple, if often duplicitous. The fate of an average Sri Lankan female domestic well illustrates the process.[3] Local agents in Sri Lanka, with ties to a Lebanese agency, will hire a worker after making her sign a contract, probably in English, before her departure. This will come after an exchange of money, since the worker is required to pay a fee to be selected. This may be in the range of $500, which is very high for most potential workers. Some are obliged to borrow the money, "incurring a debt, which, in the future, may prevent them from returning to their country if their Lebanese employer denies them their wages."[4]
In Lebanon, meanwhile, future employers are also paying money, this time to the import agency. At a rate of between $1,000 and $3,000 - depending on nation of origin - employers 'reserve' a migrant worker, who will earn a salary ranging between roughly $150 and $300. The migrant worker usually has no say in this, as her salary is agreed between the agency and the employer. The figures fluctuate for different nationalities: A Filipino domestic worker may 'cost' $3,000, while those from Madagascar or Ethiopia come cheaper at between $1,000 and $1,500.
Upon arrival in Lebanon, the migrant domestic worker generally remains under the responsibility of the agency for a period of three months. This time period is stipulated in a second contract, usually written in Arabic, that the migrant is made to sign upon arrival in Lebanon. The second contract is usually more stringent than the first which the worker signed in his or her home country. This abusive practice is made easier by the ignorance of the migrant worker. Workers may find that the second contract compels them to work more years than initially believed, and at a lower monthly salary. Some embassies have taken some precautions against the procedure, by insisting that local contracts be approved by them. Yet as an individual familiar with the issue suggested, embassies do not implement the practice consistently.[5] Nor are they particularly keen to complicate a process from which their host country derives economic advantage.
While migrant domestic workers are the responsibility of the local agency for their first few months in Lebanon, they are taken in hand by their employers upon their arrival in Beirut. However, the fact that the agency paid to bring the workers to Lebanon and is initially accountable for them, means that it has a vested interest in insuring that there are no problems between employee and employer. This usually means that in case of a problem agencies, either directly or through encouragement of the employer, put pressure on the weaker party - the migrant worker. This leads to much potential abuse, which we will discuss later in the section on relations between migrant workers and employers. Such behavior is often encouraged by the agencies, who have no interest in siding with the worker: it is, after all, the employers who pay the bulk of agencies' fees.
The relationship between employment agencies and the embassies or honorary consulates representing countries from which migrant workers originate is often an ambiguous one. It is fair to say that, by and large, foreign embassies are timid when it comes to challenging the Lebanese authorities, agencies, or employers for mistreatment of their nationals who are workers. One overriding reason for this is that the workers are a source of much-needed hard currency for their home countries, and the embassies are unwilling to jeopardize what is, in the end, a financially advantageous situation.[6] Moreover, as one observer remarked, there is often a class difference between embassy personnel and local migrant nationals. This makes it unlikely that diplomats will endanger their career prospects by picking a fight with the Lebanese over domestic workers.
Often, local honorary consuls have a close relationship with employment agencies. Two of the countries sending large contingents of migrant workers to Lebanon - the Philippines and Sri Lanka - opened embassies relatively late after the end of the war: the Philippines in November 1996 and Sri Lanka in early 1998. Prior to this, they were represented by locals. Yet even once they are opened, embassies do not invariably side with their nationals. In 1998, for example, Filipinos complained that their embassy was actually supporting employment agencies against them.[7]
At other times, honorary consuls have sought to benefit financially from migrant workers. In the case of Sri Lanka, for example, the country's honorary consul (before the embassy's opening) was a Lebanese man involved in the 'importation' of migrant workers.[8] This always made it unlikely that he would genuinely represent the interests of Sri Lankan nationals. Indeed, the contrary was true: there was much money to be made from the ill-treatment of migrants. It was the honorary consul who, for a high fee, delivered passports to nationals who had had their documents illegally confiscated. Indeed, this was one reason - in addition to human rights abuses - why the Sri Lankan government, under pressure from its community in Lebanon, decided to open an embassy in the first place.
The Sri Lanka embassy has sought to impose order on contracts between employees and agencies. For example, the embassy issues a document legally binding the employee, the agency, and the employer, and is reportedly more willing to repatriate employees if the contract is breached.[9] The embassy has reportedly also taken measures to make the restitution of lost passports easier. Major problems remain, however: the most obvious is that many Sri Lankans work illegally, without contracts. Therefore the embassy's control over contract stipulations is all but irrelevant. Nor are the controls it imposes mandatory. Complicating matters is the frequent reluctance of the Lebanese authorities to look more closely into cases of physical mistreatment. As one human rights activist put it: "An embassy will do nothing in a country where the law does not protect people."[10]

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3-The case of Hemalatha Mendis

Hemalatha Mendis is a Sri Lankan domestic worker whose plight was vividly described by a reporter for the Daily Star, Lebanon's English-language daily newspaper. The incident perfectly encapsulated the often convoluted relationship between domestic worker, employment agency, employer, and the Sri Lankan embassy.[11]
In early July 1999, the reporter showed officials at the Sri Lankan embassy in Beirut photographs she had received of a young girl with her thighs, arms, and face bruised. The photographs were of one Hemaltha Mendis, and were taken as evidence by a Sri Lankan housekeeper who worked next door to her. Mendis' injuries were the result of beatings she received when she was returned to a recruiting agency by her employer. Apparently, the employer, a woman who lived on the campus of the American University of Beirut, was unhappy with Mendis' performance and took her to the agency to be taught a lesson. The irony is that Mendis, according to her testimony, often worked from 6:00 AM until midnight. The unidentified owner of the agency punished Mendis by beating her with a stick on her back, arms, and legs. He then returned her to the employer.
This did not put an end to the abuse at home, however. Mendis' employer allegedly continued to beat her, and locked her in a dark room for a time. Several weeks later, the employer had to travel and decided to 'impound' Mendis at the agency for the duration. There she lived in a room crowded with twenty other domestic workers. Meanwhile, the agency owner continued to beat the women. This continued until Haddad appeared at the agency accompanied by Sri Lankan embassy officials asking for Mendis. Haddad saw a woman cleaning the floor and immediately identified her as Mendis, the woman in the photographs taken by the housekeeper. Mendis was quickly spirited away, and a row ensued as the agency's personnel sought to throw Haddad and the Sri Lankan diplomats out.
The embassy complained to the Lebanese foreign ministry, but received no response. The Daily Star decided to publish the photographs of the bruised Mendis. This prompted the agency to quietly drop her off at the Sri Lanka embassy, apparently to avoid further adverse publicity. The story did not end there, however: the agency owner reportedly showed up at the embassy soon afterwards to reclaim Mendis. Embassy officials rebuffed him.
The incident provides a rather alarming view of the power of the agencies. For one thing, the Lebanese foreign ministry did not even bother to respond to what was clearly the violation of the rights of a foreign national. One doubts that a similar level of unconcern would be shown for a citizen of the United States or of a Western European country. In this particular case, Sri Lankan officials did make it a point to help the migrant worker, although one has a hunch that this was the result of two things: the fact that photographic evidence existed, and the fact that the evidence was brought by a local newspaper which was willing to make a fuss over the incident.
What was equally obvious was the level of wanton cruelty of the agency personnel. The repeated beatings of Mendis and her fellow domestic workers was almost pathological, going well beyond the standard abuse prevalent in work conditions. If Mendis' account was true, and there is no reason to doubt it, the pattern of mistreatment, in its recurrence, revealed that violence was being used as a means of imposing discipline. This is reminiscent of conditions in the more disreputable penal systems, where the objective is to dismantle any remnants of self-worth.
Finally, the incident showed the particularly unhealthy relationship between the agency and the employer. According to Mendis, the employer sought the assistance of the agency to punish her for alleged 'misbehavior'. That would mean that the agency, at least the one in question, took on the role of final disciplining authority, something wholly unlawful. At the same time, the employer also saw the agency as something tantamount to a dog pound - a place where she could keep her maid until she returned from a trip. This, naturally, goes to the heart of the relationship between employer and employee (of which more below), but also exposes how agencies can be perceived as allies by abusive employers. The irony, of course, is that it is the agencies which benefit most from a financial transaction - the placement of domestics - that is decidedly to the disadvantage of employers.

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4-Employers and migrants

Upon arrival in Lebanon, a migrant worker's principal relationship is with the employer. Whether one comes as a domestic, as a construction worker, or as someone employed in the myriad odd jobs that migrant workers are employed in, it is almost always the employer who determines salary, the quality of work conditions, working hours, and a variety of other details affecting the everyday standards of an employee's living conditions. In other words, whether the migrant worker is in Lebanon legally or not, his or her status often is not defined by objective criteria, which the state must impose. The lot of migrant workers is usually decided by the employer, who may treat his workers well or, alternatively, make their life unbearable.
In what follows, we will look at the employer-employee relationship in the two primary types of employment situations existing in Lebanon: That where a migrant worker is employed legally; and that where he or she is employed illegally. Migrant workers who are in Lebanon illegally may have initially arrived in the country legally, with a contract guaranteed by a Lebanese employer. On the other hand, even illegal migrants can agree to a simple written contract with an employer, since the notary public who notarizes the agreement will assume that it is needed to gain a work permit. As one will quickly see, however, there is considerable overlap between the two groups in terms of problems they face with employers.
Most migrant workers who arrive in Lebanon to work legally come as domestics, through an agency. Indeed, their contract is what allows the state to authorize their legal residency in Lebanon. As shown above in our discussion of agencies, the nature of the new relationship upon the worker's arrival plays to her or his disfavor. Three months after a domestic's arrival in Lebanon, responsibility reverts to the employer. Because employers have paid so high a fee to the employment agency, they are inclined to take measures - most of them illegal - to ensure that they do not lose out on their investment. In this they are encouraged by the agencies as they were, in the past, by civil servants, in particular security personnel at the airport. Among these steps are confiscation of the migrant worker's passport, restriction on freedom of movement - some migrant domestics are locked indoors by employers - and illicit measures affecting salaries.
Confiscation of a passport or other identity document is prohibited by Lebanese law and by the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families. The measure has two major objectives. First, it deters workers from running away from a place of employment, since the obtainment of a new passport may cost a great deal of money - the Lebanese authorities demand $900 for the issue of a new passport.[12] Moreover, workers without identity papers have difficulty finding new employment, illegal or not, given that many employers are inclined to confiscate personal documents.
Second, without a passport migrant workers are unable to leave Lebanon. That is, unless, they can find the necessary funds to purchase a new passport. However, lately the Lebanese authorities have tightened even this loophole, insisting that migrant workers who wish to leave Lebanon obtain a release document signed by their employer.
The confiscation of passports or other identity documents is part of a larger problem faced by domestic migrant workers: limitations on freedom of movement. This can mean anything from being locked indoors to being obliged to work long hours - effectively limiting a worker's right to engage in a whole series of other activities. The fact that an employee is locked indoors and prevented from circulating freely is a byproduct of ambient mistrust existing between employer and employee. Abusive employers adhere to a principle that if domestics are free to move around, they will find it easy to escape the place of employment in case of theft. Yet not only are limitations on freedom of movement illegal, they violate the contractual relationship between employer and employee: running away from a home is not forbidden; legally it is tantamount to a breach of contract, which requires only that the injured party receive adequate compensation.[13]
Implicit, however, is another motive: the ability, and freedom, to thoroughly control another human being. The philosophical implications of this are obvious. But even at a more mundane level, such control is seen as beneficial because the employer believes that it might avert a series of potential personal problems affecting the employee. In other words, some of the more abusive employers seek to undermine anything approaching an identity on the part of employees. The fact that such behavior may be tantamount to slavery is usually ignored.
The absence of a state-enforced right to free time often makes contractual workers, particularly domestics, dependent on the whims of their employers as regards their schedules. As noted earlier, many migrant domestics are compelled to sign a disadvantageous contract upon their arrival in Lebanon. Often, the contract alters an initial contract, or an initial promise, for numbers of days off per week. Migrant workers may find that they suddenly have only one day off, or none at all. At the same time, migrant workers may be forced to work for long hours without any form of financial compensation. Press reports of domestics being made to work for up to eighteen hours are common. Both of these abuses - the absence of days off and long working hours - contradict the principles embodied in Article 25 of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers, which outlines equality of treatment in work between migrant workers and nationals.[14]
The fact that a majority of migrant non-domestic workers are males changes their conditions of living in some respects. This is not invariably the case, however, especially if the worker entered Lebanon illegally, which provides an employer with considerable leverage over him or her. This leverage often makes unnecessary the confiscation of documents, since an illegal migrant worker can easily be denounced in case of disagreement with an employer. At the same time, employers tend not to invest in manual or petty laborers as do families in domestics, which limits somewhat the restrictive measures adopted to insure that their investment is not lost.
While this appears to suggest more freedom for non-domestic workers, the reality may be quite different. Just as a well-treated non-Arab Afro-Asian domestic may have wide latitude to do what he or she pleases, within reasonable limits, manual laborers, especially those from Arab countries such as Syria or Egypt, may find themselves working long hours in conditions that are barely acceptable. A major problem faced by many manual workers, and those working in petty jobs, is immoderate work conditions. Often, such workers - for example construction workers or gas station attendants - will be on the job from very early morning until the end of the day, or when the establishment closes in the late evening. They will generally get one day off a week, usually on Sunday, and even this may vary. In exchange, they will be paid a minimal wage, well below what they are entitled to, given the long hours they put into their work. In every way, then, migrant workers can be squeezed to the maximum as regards their time, with no impetus for employers to pay overtime.
As noted above, the confiscation of documents and the excessive control over an employee's movements and schedule are often implicitly justified by employers as necessary to insure that their investment in a migrant worker is maximized. Another similar mode of behavior, justified along the same lines, is to limit or control an employee's salary. Salaries can easily be lowered, since they are generally negotiated between an agency and the employer, who can finalize details in a contract the employee is compelled to sign and usually cannot understand. Additionally, agencies will advise employers to place the employee's salary in an account in the employer's name. Both measures are equivalent to denying an employee access to his or her lawful earnings. It also, incidentally, denies the employee the funds to pay for a wide variety of activities including leisure activities.
Reports in the Lebanese press have also pointed to other types of abuse: For example, some employers have obliged their employees to live in humiliating conditions, with domestics denied adequate living quarters and forced to sleep on the floor in kitchens or dining rooms. Aside from being offensive, such practices deny them a basic right to privacy. Other workers have complained of being under-fed, making it difficult for them to endure the long hours of work imposed on them.
As regards conditions of work and habitation, the situation is generally worse for manual workers and those employed in petty jobs. While Egyptians or Syrians are frequently hired in batches, making the social aspect of their work more bearable, they tend, on average, to live in far more insalubrious conditions at their place of employment than domestics. Most gas stations or construction sites, for example, have a small space allocated for workers, who almost always sleep several to a room and share a single, barely operating bathroom. While this cannot, strictly speaking, be blamed on the employer, since destitute workers are happy to be provided with some sort of lodging, the living conditions are often well below the norms outlined in the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers. Of course, not all manual employees reside at their workplace. Some may share homes in the more affordable neighborhoods. Others even manage to rent homes alone for a low fee. However, these probably make up the minority, given the relatively high cost of renting apartments in Lebanon.
Perhaps the most talked-about forms of mistreatment - legitimately so - are physical punishment and sexual abuse, which employees, non-Arab Afro-Asian domestics in particular, are made to submit to. It should be recalled that a majority of domestic workers are females, which only increases their vulnerabilities. As shown above in the case of Hemalatha Mendis, routine beatings, whether by employers or agencies, are a way of life for some domestics. Rape is also frequent in households. Needless to say such behavior is illegal according to Lebanese law, and some lawyers have attempted to take those responsible to court. There have been rare successes, but most of the time the guilty go unpunished.
There are two primary reasons for this: the first is that the state's security and legal apparatus, in particular the police, tends not to side with migrant workers in cases of abuse.[15] More troubling, however, is the second reason: abused migrant workers are often reluctant to testify against their tormentors. Their primary motivation appears to be fear - whether of retribution or eventual loss of employment and, eventually, expulsion. As one harried lawyer put it: "When it comes time to go to court, they just don't want to face their employers."[16] One by-product of this situation has been an increase in the number of illegal workers. That is because many prefer to breach their contract and work on their own, rather than continue to face abusive treatment in a household or other place of employment where their rights are routinely violated.[17]
The sex, and even the age, of a migrant worker, will affect the physical treatment he or she receives. As most manual workers and those involved in menial jobs are males, the likelihood of their being physically mistreated or sexually abused - at least the adults among them - is lower than female domestics. Moreover, the fact that many are illegal anyway gives them, to a certain extent, the flexibility to easily abandon their job if the mistreatment becomes too odious. That is because employers can easily rehire a new worker, usually without a concomitant sense that they have lost an investment, since there are no hiring or legal fees to pay. Yet mistreatment can imply many things short of physical abuse. It can mean frequently putting an employee's life at risk in his job, to simply treating him or her disrespectfully, which is often inherent in the rigidly hierarchical relationship between workers on the one hand, and employers or overseers on the other.
How widespread is mistreatment? While no reliable statistics are available, the anecdotal evidence of mistreatment, particularly regarding non-Arab Afro-Asian domestics, has given Lebanon a rather excessive reputation internationally as a bastion of boorishness.[18] As always, it is best to tread carefully when accepting such sweeping judgments. There most definitely is a problem with migrant workers. Much work needs to be done to inject the rule of law, therefore predictability, into the mutual relationship between Lebanese employers and migrant workers. However, it is fair to say that conditions are improving, and that a majority of workers live in conditions between the bearable and the good, even if the more flagrant cases of abuse capture the headlines. To live in merely bearable conditions is inadequate, even unacceptable, but it does not imply that a worker is being tortured, as a few definitely are. The following case study shows the extremes of behavior vis-à-vis a contractual female migrant worker, and reveals what the real problem is: namely that the fate of workers is too highly dependent on the oppression or kindness of employers, and too little on objective judicial principles which can protect workers against abuse in all circumstances.

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5-The case of Louisa

Louisa is a Filipino domestic who was raped by a Lebanese man who was an acquaintance.[19] Her employer, realizing that Louisa had been raped, began the arduous process of bringing the man to justice. Shortly after the crime, he called a government-appointed doctor to examine Louisa and confirm the rape. The medical report was then given to the police within a 24-hour limit set by Lebanese law, hence avoiding the more costly procedure of hiring a lawyer. After an unsuccessful effort by Louisa and the police to find the rapist's home, the employer went out and found it on his own. The rapist was identified and brought in by the police. Louisa then took the police to the scene of the crime and described what had happened. She met with a magistrate who informed her that she had 48 hours to determine whether he should file charges against the rapist, who faced a five-year prison term. Louisa remained adamant that he should be punished. It is at that point that the employer, after intense lobbying from the rapist's family, asked for a 24-hour delay in the magistrate's decision. He persuaded Louisa that a trial would be costly and stressful, and that it was better to agree to financial compensation. Eventually, she agreed to $10,000 and dropped the charges.
There are several facets to the incident that are relevant to the next section in this chapter - on the relationship between migrant workers and the state - particularly its judicial apparatus. However, the essential feature of the episode was the intervention of Louisa's employer. His persistence showed how dependent are migrant workers, particularly women, on such otherwise elusive values such as the kindness of employers. Moreover, it was the financial assistance he provided that moved the legal process forward. In a properly-functioning system, however, Louisa would have been able to navigate through the legal process independently of her employer in order to right a wrong.
A second aspect of the episode was that it contradicted the facile belief that Lebanese employers are generally abusive. Perhaps many are, but far more relevant is the fact that many are not, and yet they will not contemplate using the judicial system to insure redress for employees who are victims of abuse outside their place of residence. There is, in many respects, a problem of perception of the legal system, which is often, legitimately, seen as favoring Lebanese employers. As we shall see in the next section, this triangular relationship between migrant workers, employers, and the judicial-security system is a complex one, and is often a major cause of the myriad problems faced by migrant workers in Lebanon.

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