UN and ILO Conventions
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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

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6-The state and migrant workers

In this section, we shall focus on the relationship between migrant workers and the Lebanese state. The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers has a long series of provisions protecting migrant workers in their relations with the security organs and the judicial hierarchy in states of employment. This includes, most notably, protection against inhumane conditions of incarceration, the right to a trial, equality before the law and the courts, protection against illegal expulsion, and liberty of movement, particularly when departing a country. The convention does, however, limit the activities of migrant workers when these might threaten the security of the state of employment.
One of the more flagrant problems affecting migrant workers is the absence of an adequate link between legal migrant workers and the Lebanese authorities. There is no formal bureau at Lebanon's labor ministry to deal with migrant workers, or sub-categories of such workers. This creates an obvious, and fundamental, problem of communication between migrants and the Lebanese state. As one activist, Tina Naccash, remarked, the opening of such a bureau is necessary, at the least to help migrant workers in difficulty.[20]
Yet the potential usefulness of such a bureau can be much greater: Article 65 of the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers specifically calls on the signatories to "maintain appropriate services to deal with questions concerning international migration of workers and members of their families." Their functions would include implementing policies on migration; exchanging information on migrant workers with other states; providing information to employers, workers, and their organizations on laws and regulations relating to migrant workers; providing information and assistance to migrant workers for a series of activities, including those affecting formalities, arrangements for departure or arrival, remunerated activities, tax payments, etc.
The mere fact that no accurate information exists on the numbers of migrant workers in Lebanon is as good a sign as any of the necessity of a bureau of migrant affairs. The absence of such a bureau has not meant that the labor ministry has been unconcerned with the fate of migrants. Rather, its efforts have been haphazard. In February 1999, the Sri Lankan labor minister, John Senevirathna, traveled to Beirut to hold talks with Lebanese officials on the problems facing his migrant nationals. He declared that thanks to the intervention of the labor ministry, domestics who had been stranded in Lebanon because they could not afford the $900 demanded by the authorities for new travel documents, were allowed to return home.[21] The ministry's power is relatively limited, however, as regards the fate of migrant workers, particularly those who are detained or who face complex exit procedures. Mr. Senevirathna did say he would ask for a bilateral agreement between Lebanon and Sri Lanka, to incorporate "all matters of foreign employment."[22]
Relations between migrant workers and the judiciary have also been relatively uneasy. This, however, is not always due to discrimination, but to the intricacies of legal procedures, which affect Lebanese and non-Lebanese alike. As suggested above in the case of the Filipino domestic worker, Louisa, legal proceedings often must conform to guidelines that may be difficult for a migrant worker to fulfill. Migrant workers are generally unfamiliar with Lebanese law, which means that when it comes time to resort to the courts they rarely know what to do, or even what their rights are.
There is also the problem of cost. Everything from asking for a medical report in case of physical abuse to hiring a lawyer can be prohibitively expensive for someone earning two or three hundred dollars a month at the most. One must also consider a less tangible problem: indifference. If migrant workers seek assistance, they cannot at all be certain that their Lebanese interlocutors will respond positively to their requests or complaints.
As noted above, an additional complicating factor is that the Lebanese legal system is in crisis. The system suffers from a dearth of competent magistrates, backlog, corruption, and political interference. This often means that whether one is a migrant or not, the system as a whole fails to meet the needs of litigants or defendants. Thus, detained migrant workers, like many others, may spend months in detention facilities or prison simply awaiting eviction procedures or a trial, if they have been accused of a crime. Once they are expelled administratively or brought before a magistrate, they may not understand the language. Nor are there any guarantees that a migrant worker will be properly defended once a lawyer has been found.[23]
Adding to the difficult situation of migrants are their often deplorable conditions in detention. One must recall that migrant workers who are in Lebanon illegally are considered separate from criminals. The Lebanese authorities generally accept this distinction, which is why migrants are detained in special areas reserved for them, whether in government buildings or prisons. The conditions in these facilities, however, are not necessarily better than those of convicted prisoners. For example, Lebanon's main penitentiary at Roumieh is infamous for its crowded cells, its promiscuity, and its filth. Indeed, this prompted prisoners to riot in 1998. However, the conditions of migrant workers have improved of late, at least in relative terms.
As noted in Chapter One, for a migrant to be evicted from Lebanon the decision must be taken by a tribunal. In the past, however, the General Security service, has expelled migrants illegally by administrative writ. While awaiting such a decision, migrants have been detained in contravention to the law, and in facilities with no legal sanction. Nor are basic procedures of incarceration always respected: Women prisoners are watched over by male guards. Similarly, the General Security prison in Furn al-Shubbak has been described as "shameful" by someone who actively helps Afro-Asian migrant workers.[24]
The problematic relationship between migrant workers and the judicial authorities is an extension, in many respects, of that between migrants and the security organs, in particular the police. While it is always best to avoid generalizations, it is probably fair to argue that the police are unmotivated when it comes to investigating, and punishing, wrongdoing visited upon migrant workers. Again, this attitude is part of a wider problem in Lebanon, which affects migrants and Lebanese alike: namely the inferior quality of many public servants, particularly after the war, of which some members of the police force are an example. It is often difficult even for Lebanese to persuade the police to investigate petty crimes, and all too often violence against migrant workers appears to be interpreted by police as part of this category.
Human rights activists have reported a variety of violations of the law by the police. While insisting that not all policemen or precincts were involved, one activist, Tina Naccash, told a local newspaper that she knew of two cases of police brutality: In one, an 18-year-old Sri Lankan girl was repeatedly raped by an officer, while in another a Sri Lankan woman was so badly beaten that she had to spend three days in hospital.[25]
Roland Tawq, a lawyer, who represented a Filipino female migrant worker beaten by police (see below) was equally blunt, remarking: "I can tell [a newspaper reporter] with 100-percent certainty that many people are being beaten during investigations. These police procedures present the biggest problems for lawyers. They beat our clients and force them to confess. But once the accused reaches court, he or she would say something completely different."[26]
Police abuse may be abetted by the judicial authorities. Naturally, one should avoid generalizations. However, some magistrates have, for example, extend the period of detention of migrants, while ignoring legally-mandated deadlines, thus rendering the detention process illegal. At the same time, there is often little incentive on the part of some magistrates to investigate police brutality. This is partly a result of the political situation in the country. Since the end of the war in 1990, the security organs, including the police, the General Security service, and the various intelligence services, have been given great latitude in the system. This appears, partially, to be the excess backlash of a decade and a half when state authority was virtually nonexistent. At the same time, there is strong political influence over the judiciary. As a result, magistrates tend to avoid clashes with the security organs, particularly over mistreatment foreigners, as this may pose career or political problems for them.
In the following case study, the relationship between the Lebanese judicial authorities and the police is brought to light. The case, which was based on a false accusation, not only exposed abuse of authority by the judiciary and police, it also underlined the extent to which both are often willing to favor the employer against the migrant employee, even when the evidence suggests that the employee is innocent.

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7-The case of Linda Sachbibit

Linda Sachbibit is a 42-year-old Filipino domestic worker who was falsely accused of theft, arrested, beaten by the police, and illegally detained on order of a magistrate.[27] Sachbibit, who was one of two housekeepers in a household, was accused by her French employer of having stolen a medallion. The employer called in the police, who took Sachbibit in for interrogation. During the course of the interrogation, she was repeatedly beaten and hung, as she put it, "like a roast chicken." At one point she even fainted. The police tried to force her to admit to stealing the medallion and giving it to her boyfriend. Sachbibit denied the theft and said she did not even have a boyfriend.
Sachbibit's sister, who was also at the police station, contacted the Philippines embassy to report what was happening. The embassy sent someone to see Sachbibit after her beating, and subsequently contacted Lebanon's general prosecutor. According to the law, the police were entitled to detain Sachbibit for 24 hours, with a further 24-hour extension allowed only by authorization of the general prosecutor, if deemed necessary. Sachbibit was kept for four days, before an extension was approved. And only a week after that was an arrest warrant issued. As Sachbibit's lawyer put it: "So we're looking at eleven days where Erlinda was detained illegally."
Sachbibit was released on bail after spending a month and a half in prison. To press charges against the police she would have had to seek out another witness, or produce a medical report. Since the witnesses in the room were all policemen, and there was no chance to file a medical report soon after the beatings, such a measure was impossible. Similarly, while the Philippines embassy notified the general prosecutor of the mistreatment, it was unwilling to instigate a crisis with the Lebanese authorities over the incident.
There were several aspects to the case which deserve mention. First, was the police's unjustified and unlawful brutality - indeed torture - which went unpunished. In any country with a well-operating legal system and with proper oversight over the police and security organs, such behavior would have provoked a furor. In Lebanon it didn't, partly for the reasons outlined above: the timidity of magistrates when it comes to legally pursuing members of the police or security services; an often generalized indifference to the fate of migrants; and, in a more abstract way, a public unwillingness to challenge authority by exposing official wrongdoing.
The incident also revealed the laziness of some policemen, which says a great deal about the quality of certain categories of public servants. The police assumed, with no apparent evidence, that Sachbibit was guilty of theft, merely on the basis of her employer's accusation. Revealingly, at no time was any suspicion cast on the other housekeeper, who may conceivably have stolen the medallion. The police avoided conducting even the minimal requirements of an investigation, including interrogating all possible suspects.
A third aspect of the incident was the not wholly clarified performance of the general prosecutor, and Sachbibit's illegal detention beyond the mandated deadline. The fact that the general prosecutor received a complaint from the Philippines embassy (and passed it on to the police), proves that there was judicial awareness of both the date and conditions of Sachbibit's detention. And yet an extension of Sachbibit's detention was authorized, and this three days after the 24-hour limit for renewal. Despite the illegality of the detention, despite the intervention of a foreign embassy, despite the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing, Sachbibit was detained a further seven days until an arrest warrant was issued. And as final icing on the cake, Sachbibit was released without a trial date being set.
There appeared to be an implicit agreement between the Philippines embassy and the Lebanese authorities to avoid making an issue of Sachbibit's predicament. Even though embassy personnel had seen Sachbibit after she had been brutalized, nothing was done to insure judicial redress, or at least insure compensation for the woman. As noted earlier, diplomatic personnel of countries which send migrant workers to Lebanon are at times unwilling to rock the boat with the Lebanese authorities: this may adversely affect their careers, or, more mundanely, jeopardize a valued source of hard currency.

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8-Migrant workers and Lebanese society

This is hardly the place to draw detailed conclusions about Lebanese attitudes towards migrant workers. That would require more methodical techniques, such as opinion polls, which would probably not reveal much either, since expressed attitudes towards migrants need not necessarily determine what kind of behavior a potential employer will engage in when a worker is under his or her orders.
It is probably fair to say that the attitude in Lebanon towards migrant workers often reflects a perception of their status near or at the bottom of the social ladder. Lebanon is, simply, not a country were migrant workers are much respected. Some have chosen to see the disdain as a sign of racism. Sister Amelia Torres, a Filipino nun who assists domestic workers, openly declared: "Most Lebanese are racists. They say so openly."[28] Father Martin McDermott expressed a similar opinion in an interview. Both may be right, though both were merely expressing a feeling based on experience, not on an accurate study of Lebanese mores. Given that they essentially deal with migrant workers with problems, this alleged racism may be more pronounced in their Lebanese interlocutors than in society at large.
Blacks in particular appear to have a hard time of it. An informal survey conducted with 100 people by the English-language newspaper the Daily Star, seemed to reveal a genuine problem: 40% of respondents thought blacks less civilized or inferior to whites; 25% thought blacks less intelligent than whites. Appearances also seemed to be a problem: 20% thought that blacks looked "scary"; 33% thought blacks were dirty; and 13% said they would move if a black individual sat next to them. According to the reporter, respondents appeared to distinguish between 'Westernized' blacks - Kofi Annan was cited positively - and 'African' blacks.[29]
The accusation of racism is always better taken carefully. Informal surveys are of value only in determining types of prejudices, but do not help much in determining the magnitude and limits of racial intolerance. Level of education, lack of interaction with other races, and ignorance should be taken into account when determining an individual's alleged racism. This is not to justify acts of racism, but to distinguish between its causes in different categories of people. In a nutshell, it is more difficult to explain why a cosmopolitan Lebanese diplomat living in Paris should treat her Ethiopian domestic worker as a virtual slave, then to explain why a Lebanese villager, with a rudimentary education, should express suspicion of blacks, whom he almost never deals with.[30]
And yet racism, in its various manifestations, most definitely exists. In July 1998 a 27-year-old Sudanese student, Lewi Mursale, was robbed by three men in Dikwaneh. When he went to the police to report the robbery, they refused to believe his story, even though he was bleeding. They also refused to provide him with a written report of the crime, and nearly incarcerated him when he insisted, once again, that he was telling the truth.[31]
Does it matter whether one is an Arab migrant worker? The fact that Arab migrants speak the same language as Lebanese does somewhat improve relations. However, Arab manual workers are also victims of the status accompanying their jobs which, as noted earlier, are often menial. This appears to justify the long backbreaking hours employers will impose on them, in conditions that are often deplorable. While one cannot really mention, in the Arabs' case, a racist impulse, there is often in relations between Lebanese and Arab migrants the palpable scorn that tends to color relations between a destitute and dependent worker, and an employer or overseer with authority over him (or her).[32]
There is a fundamental problem in trying to determine the motivation for abusive behavior of migrant workers. It somehow misses the point whether the cause is racism, a sense of socio-economic superiority, or something else. It seems more likely that those engaging in flagrant abuse are frequently colorblind: in other words, individuals who severely mistreat migrant workers are likely also to mistreat Lebanese employees or, even, members of their own family. It is probably quite rare to see individuals who are genuinely irreproachable in their daily life suddenly turn against their domestic workers and brutalize them. In other words, mistreatment is too often caught up in the myriad other prejudices and idiosyncrasies of individuals to be so easily identifiable as racism.
Before one seeks to change Lebanese attitudes towards migrant workers - an ambitious objective in itself - it is necessary to provide migrants with a legal framework which ensures that their rights are protected. Only once it is realized that migrant workers have rights, and that these are protected by law, will attitudes in Lebanon begin to change, as will, hopefully, the more abusive forms of behavior. This means a transformation in enforcement of the law, affecting, among others, magistrates, the police, and the security organs. That is not too utopian an objective, since the revitalization and reform of the security and judicial hierarchy is an inherent part of the reconstruction effort Lebanon has been engaged in since 1990.

9- Notes:

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1. See 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.
2. Interview with Roger Hanna, the lawyer for the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut.
3. For a good account of the 'importation' of Sri Lankan workers in Lebanon, see Reem Haddad, "A Modern-Day 'Slave Trade': Sri Lankan Workers in Lebanon," in Middle East Report, Summer 1999, pp.39-41. See, also, Marie-Odile et Xavier Favre, "Trafic de 'servantes' à Beyrouth," Le Monde diplomatique, Juin, 1998, page 20.
4. See Haddad, op. cit., page 39.
5. Interview with Father Martin McDermott, February 8, 2000.
6. See Scarlett Haddad, "La grande détresse des domestiques sri lankais au Liban", L'Orient-Le Jour, July 30,1998.
7. Unpublished report by Father Martin McDermott, op. cit.
8. Interview with Father Martin McDermott.
9. See Julie Hannouche, "Modern-day Slavery: A Maid in Lebanon," in the Daily Star, November 21, 1998.
10. Tina Naccash quoted in Reem Haddad, op. cit., page 40.
11. The specifics of the incident are taken from two articles written by Reem Haddad for the Daily Star of July 5, 1999 and July 28, 1999; apparently it is Haddad's persistence that led to the eventual release of Mendis.
12. This is a mandatory fee for processing travel documents for non-Lebanese who lose their passports in Lebanon. See Haddad, "A Modern-Day 'Slave Trade'," op. cit., page 39.
13. Liberty of movement is guaranteed by Article 39 of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
14. Article 25 notes that migrant workers "shall enjoy treatment no less favorable than that which applies to nationals of the State of employment in respect of remuneration and: (a) Other conditions of work, that is to say, overtime, hours of work, weekly rest, holidays with pay, safety, health, termination of the employment relationship and any other conditions of work which, according to national law and practice, are covered by these terms".
15. See below.
16. The lawyer is Mirella Abdel Sater, quoted in Haddad, "A Modern-Day 'Slave Trade'," op. cit., page 40.
17. See Hannouche, op. cit.
18. Father Martin McDermott, who helps Afro-Asian migrants, estimated that he had, on average, one to two complaints per week, though these need not imply physical mistreatment. Interview, February 8, 2000.
19. The details of the incident are recounted by Helen Khal in the Daily Star, February 8, 1999.
20. See Haddad, "A Modern-Day 'Slave Trade', op. cit., page 41.
21. See Reem Haddad, "Ministers Tackle Mistreatment of Sri Lankans," in the Daily Star, February 3, 1999.
22. Ibid.
23. Unpublished report by Father Martin McDermott, op. cit.
24. Ibid.
25. See Reem Haddad, "Housekeeper Says Policemen Tried to Beat Confession Out of Her", the Daily Star, October 6, 1998.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. See Hannouche, op. cit.
29. See Reem Haddad, "Race Hate: Hurled From a Window for Being Black", the Daily Star, July 27, 1998.
30. The Lebanese diplomat was Donna Turk. In a diplomatic cause célébre, Turk was quietly returned to Beirut after the French authorities learned that she treated her Ethiopian housemaid inhumanely: the housemaid was locked indoors, deprived of her passport, denied a salary, made to sleep on the kitchen floor, and forced to work long hours. See Thierry Parisot, "Quand l'immigration tourne à l'esclavage", Le Monde diplomatique, Juin 1998, pp.20-21.
31. See Haddad, "Race Hate", op. cit.
32. See, for example, Amro Saad el-Din, "Al shabab al-'arab al-'amiloun fi lubnan, zaman al-hijrah wal-'izlat fi imberatoriyyat-fawdah", Al-Safir, November 5, 1998.

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