||Migrant Workers in Lebanon
- CHAPTER FOUR -
- Chapter one
- Chapter two
- Chapter three
An Assessment of the Condition of
in Lebanon, and Prospects
Before examining the prospects for a
more harmonious incorporation of migrant laborers into Lebanese society,
perhaps one should sound the cynical note. There is an equilibrium of sorts
governing the various relationships between migrant workers, agencies,
employers, the Lebanese government, and foreign embassies. To an extent all
sides are more or less satisfied with the status quo: The migrants earn good
salaries relative to their earnings at home; foreign embassies are happy with
the remittances provided by their nationals; the agencies and employers have
access to cheap labor; and the Lebanese state has wide latitude to deal with
migrant workers as it sees fit, with relatively little demanded in return.
Does this mean that all is well? Hardly. All the parties in this complex mosaic
could improve their status and situation if an overall reevaluation of policy
were undertaken. Some may argue that it is best to avoid fixing a system that
more or less works. Indeed, there are serious challenges to modifying the
present system, not the least because of the status that may end up being
provided to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers in Lebanon. Though the
Syrians are not a part of this study, they are migrant workers and, therefore,
will be affected by whatever measures the government takes on behalf of African
and East Asian workers.
Despite this, it will be the objective in this
chapter to propose possible avenues of improvement, particularly as regards the
human rights treatment of migrant workers. Underlying this, however, is a
realization that a major policy-engineering effort on the part of the Lebanese
authorities is neither probable nor perhaps even feasible under present
With this in mind, we can open with four general conclusions.
First there is a convenient absence of major policy on migrant labor. This is
the result both of Lebanon's traditional laissez-faire economic philosophy,
which has tended to make the authorities lethargic when outlining a more robust
regulatory framework for migrant workers; and of political reality, since, as
noted above, one cannot modify the status of African and Asian migrant workers
without taking into consideration that of Syrian laborers.
there are specific policy solutions to help reduce the problems of migrant
workers. However, one must keep in mind that some of the prerequisites for such
solutions may disturb the equilibrium presently existing. These prerequisites
are greater state involvement in migrant workers' affairs, more effective
implementation of the law regarding migrant workers, better cooperation between
the state and the embassies of migrant workers, and an understanding by such
embassies that there is much to be done from their end on reducing abuse of
Third, the networks which exist to help migrant
workers, whether established by migrants or by Lebanese, are necessary but not
sufficient in the creation of a satisfactory environment for migrants. An
essential ingredient to ensure that migrant workers conditions are improved is
for greater cooperation between these networks and the state. This need not
mean, however, an expansion of the state's role, since that is unlikely at a
time when smaller government is becoming the norm.
And fourth, an improved
environment for migrant workers, and a curtailing of what is commonly called
the 'new slavery', requires a change of attitudes in Lebanese society at large.
This must be done through education, through the media, and by other means. To
a certain extent, however, the process has already started, with the Lebanese
looking at the migrant workers phenomenon in a different way than they did, for
example, five years ago.
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Despite progress in the past year there
remains a dearth of state policies governing the migrant worker presence in
Lebanon. This does not mean that the Lebanese authorities have no policies, but
rather that they have not formulated, or implemented, policy guidelines
affecting many aspects of the lives of migrant workers. There are, in effect,
two sets of problems, involving policy-formulation and policy-implementation.
In this section we will deal with the first, and, in particular, those
obstacles preventing the authorities from preparing the outlines of a more
predictable relationship between migrant workers and the Lebanese state.
major problem for the Lebanese is the absence of a forum which can act as a
focal point for policy-formulation and information-gathering on migrant
workers. The Lebanese government has no specific bureau whose prime
responsibility is dealing with migrant workers. At present, migrant workers'
issues are the dominion of diverse ministries and bodies - most notably the
labor ministry and the General Security service, which is part of the interior
Consequently, it may be useful to establish a bureau of migrants
affairs, perhaps housed at the labor ministry, to coordinate policies on
migrant workers. The bureau could also deal with embassies representing the
workers, with NGOs, and, even, with domestic workers' agencies and employers.
Such a bureau might have to include representatives from the various government
ministries or institutions dealing with migrant workers.
this would be in line with the International Convention on the Protection of
the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families. The convention calls on
signatories to "maintain appropriate services" to deal with migrant workers.
Such services are to help in implementing policies, provide assistance to
migrants, and provide information to migrants, employers, and governments.
Lebanon deals with migrants essentially from a security-control perspective
(always necessary but insufficient), meaning that it focuses on insuring that
migrant workers and their employers obey legal restrictions. Assistance and the
exchange of information are not given priority, however, though some help is
provided to migrant workers in trouble on an ad hoc basis.
information is a key aspect of policy-formulation. However, getting such
information is one of the more enduring shortcomings of the Lebanese
government: whether macro-economic data, population figures, or statistics on
migrant workers, information provided by the government has been perennially
unreliable. There are two primarily reasons for this: an inadequate
administrative infrastructure for data collection; and political constraints,
which make the accumulation of data, or at least its dissemination, potentially
contentious. Thus, for example, Lebanon has no precise population figures,
because a reliable census may reveal the real size of the religious
communities, prompting some to demand greater political representation at the
expense of others.
This situation is particularly evident in the way it
affects the largest migrant worker community in Lebanon: the Syrian community.
Given the especially intimate relationship between Lebanon and Syria, it has
long been kept secret how many Syrians work in Lebanon, if indeed an accurate
figure is available at all. The fear of the Lebanese government has been that
if the real figures are publicized, this may be used by opponents of the Syrian
presence in Lebanon, or even labor representatives, as a rallying call to limit
The presence of non-Arab Afro-Asian migrant workers and those
from Arab countries other than Syria is less controversial. Official figures
exist for such communities, but those made public only tell part of the story
as they are based on numbers of work permits issued. As noted earlier, a
majority of Arab and non-Arab Afro-Asian migrants work illegally in Lebanon,
even if most of the latter initially entered the country legally. The
government's apparent unwillingness to make known the number of migrant workers
in Lebanon is due to two things: secretiveness - often for political reasons -
so that even approximate numbers for legal and illegal migrant workers are not
released; and a genuine administrative inability to count the numbers of
illegal migrants in Lebanon at any given moment.
Whether the government's
ignorance of the reality of migrant workers is intentional or not, the result
has been to undermine any sustained effort to define new policies towards them.
For example, if the authorities are unsure as to how many migrant workers are
in Lebanon - forgetting for a moment those from Syria - how can they
realistically set limits, or quotas, on migrant workers in the future? If there
is no breakdown of migrant workers by profession, how can the authorities
defend an employment policy whose main objective, one presumes, is the
invigoration and protection of Lebanese laborers? If there is no real sense of
the overall revenues generated by migrant workers in Lebanon, then how can the
authorities ascertain the optimal way for migrants, and their employers, to
contribute to national income? These are all obvious questions, and yet there
appears today to be no clear answer to any of them.
even as they operate without an appropriate administrative structure (and data
base) to draw up policy guidelines, must also contend with a third problem:
Lebanon's traditional reluctance to ratify conventions which might limit its
margin of maneuverability vis-à-vis migrants. The Lebanese economy is an
open one, and this has traditionally been interpreted by the authorities to
mean, roughly, easy access for economically-beneficial cheap labor, in exchange
for limited responsibility on the Lebanese part. In many ways, this
philosophical justification for limited state intervention in the migrant labor
market prevails. However, one need not be an advocate of overbearing state
intervention to point out that the ensuing vacuum generates social
The International the Convention on the Protection of the Rights
of All Migrant Workers and Their Families is a document Lebanon will not sign.
Nor would it be realistic for the Lebanese to do so, given the conditions it
imposes, in particular the granting of a legal status to the hundreds of
thousands of Syrian workers in Lebanon. However, in its reference to human
rights conditions, the document stands as a benchmark of behavior. Moreover,
with time one assumes an international consensus for behavior will gradually
develop around it. It is preferable, and pragmatic, for Lebanon to be part of
that emerging consensus, even if those aspects of the convention which cannot
be implemented can be discarded. Moreover, in terms of policy-formulation, the
convention at times outlines practical structures and guidelines that might
allow the authorities to improve on the uncertain equilibrium existing today
when it comes to migrant workers.
It would be a mistake to see the
convention solely in terms of the duties and responsibilities imposed on
Lebanon. The implicit assumption that a lack of policy, and therefore
responsibility, is to Lebanon's benefit is erroneous for several reasons:
First, Lebanon's international reputation has suffered from the fact that
migrant workers, particularly domestic workers, are seen as being mistreated.
This view has come out in several UN documents on human rights. While the
reality of migrant workers' conditions is less outrageous than is believed, in
articles and monographs Lebanon has been marked for opprobrium. It should be
underlined, however, that the Lebanese authorities have, at times, responded
positively to valid criticism, for example in their willingness to end
cooperation with employers and agencies in the confiscation of identity papers.
A second reason is that the fate of migrant workers, including, naturally,
Syrian workers, creates significant potential social problems. These can imply
anything from violations of a worker's human rights to unfair competition
between migrant workers and Lebanese laborers. Just because the problems are
played down by officialdom does not mean that they do not have consequences
While some may argue that the Lebanese government has
no real margin to manage the Syrian presence, this does not hold for the
substantial numbers of other migrant workers from Africa and Asia, whether Arab
or non-Arab. The presence of the latter creates a host of social, human rights,
and legal problems, which demand constant resolution and higher costs: Migrant
workers are indeed a potential source of income if fairly taxed; they are also,
conversely, a financial burden when pursued or imprisoned.
And third, at a
more philosophical level, the Lebanese state cannot abandon a whole section of
society to the inconstant currents of, often outdated, even non-existent laws.
The state can argue that it does not wish to intervene heavily in the affairs
of migrant workers and their problems, and a minimalist approach merits more
than cursory consideration. However, it cannot avoid setting an overall
regulatory framework which balances minimal state intervention against proper
(and perhaps profitable) treatment of migrant workers. The Lebanese authorities
must seriously ask themselves whether they can afford, in any domain -
particularly one as significant as that of migrant workers - to voluntarily
relinquish authority to the vagaries of a society which in its behavior, tends
to see the trees but not the forest.
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2-Policy and the
problems of migrant workers
Above we mentioned the shortcomings in the
government's permitting a vacuum in the formulation of policies towards migrant
workers. In this section we will examine policy-implementation, and ask: What
can be done to improve the lot of migrant workers, whether in terms of their
relationship with agencies, employers, embassies, the state, or any combination
Once again, it is preferable that the benchmark for new
government legislation on migrant workers, at least in terms of human rights,
be the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant
Workers and Their Families. An initial step could indeed be for the authorities
to appoint a special commission to propose new legislation based on the
convention, without, however, implementing those provisions which may create
problems for Lebanon. That, however, does not seem likely in the foreseeable
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One area that demands reform is the behavior
and power of employment agencies. Because agencies were established during the
war years, when a regulatory framework was absent, they have developed a wide
margin to take advantage both of workers and those employers operating through
agencies. This situation is no longer justifiable a decade after the end of the
war. Putting an end to the abusive powers of agencies is easier said than done:
many are linked in one way or another to influential individuals or
politicians. Having said this, however, the problem is similar to that in other
sectors of the economy, where cartels or oligopolies exist. That is why the
state, through a steady combination of political pressure and unrelenting
enforcement of the law, can compel agencies to alter their behavior. This
process has, to a modest extent, already begun.
A key ingredient here,
however, is a strong will on the part of the judicial authorities, backed by
the government, to see to it that migrant workers, especially domestics, are
properly treated. At the same time, the organic collaboration between abusive
agencies and abusive employers must be broken. In other words, if agencies are
put under increasing pressure, perhaps by threat of legal action, they may be
more inclined to discourage inappropriate behavior by employers. The contrary
is also true: once abusive employers, who may also be threatened with legal
action, demand that agencies treat employers with greater regard, agencies may
be compelled to follow suit.
One avenue the state can explore is playing
on the fundamentally contradictory relationship between agencies and employers,
at least as things now stand. Employers who hire migrant workers through
agencies believe that they have made a big investment - usually in the form of
a high fee paid to the agency. This makes them particularly reluctant to grant
a migrant worker freedom of action, since they fear that this may lose them
their investment. It also is a major justification for the discriminatory
contracts migrant workers are made to sign upon their arrival in Lebanon.
Ironically, it is the worker often pays the price for the tough conditions
imposed by agencies on employers.
Given this uneasy relationship, ways can
be sought to bring the state in on the hiring process, as a guarantor both of
fair contracts and an equitable fee. The state can earn money on this, as it
does today, while at the same time ensuring that the rights of all parties are
protected. With an outside regulator involved, both agencies and employers
would, presumably, be less inclined to manipulate the already shifting rules
involved in hiring migrants.
It is not solely the agencies which are
guilty of abuse towards migrant workers. Nor is the notion of abuse as clear as
many assume. For example, as noted in Chapter One, Lebanese employers
frequently circumvent agencies, and their migrant 'import' fees, and hire
workers directly from their country of origin. In such cases, the employer can
submit to a potential migrant worker a contract that may be abusive. The
worker, eager to come to Lebanon, may, however, agree to the tough conditions
of the contract, which tends to absolve the employer of responsibility.
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It is a trifle easy to universally accuse
employers of bad faith simply because the contracts they sign with migrants is
to the employers' advantage. There are two problems involved: legal sanction
for such contracts, and a fundamental lack of education as to what constitutes
equitable standards for hiring migrants. We will deal with the latter later on
in the section. However, when it comes to equitable standards, the fact is that
even well-intentioned employers have little impulse to reduce their margin of
maneuverability when negotiating contracts. This will continue to be the case
for as long as no special legislation exists for migrant workers, or unless the
state imposes standards of behavior in contractual relationships. Simply put,
it is a natural instinct for employers, particularly when an employee agrees,
to fashion a contract that is to their advantage.
Whether migrant workers
come through an agency or not, employers soon take over responsibility for
them. The absence of an adequate legal framework has allowed a variety of
abuses, some legal others not. Legal abuse, as noted above, can be merely a
result of the nature of the system, which does not impose standards of behavior
in the shaping of contracts. Any optimal legislation on migrant workers
requires closing loopholes which allow employers to take advantage of workers
without giving them anything in exchange, be they adequate salaries, free time,
freedom of movement, etc.
For example, in certain cases employers simply
avoid paying to the state the fees due for hiring a migrant worker. They may
then provoke a dispute, in the process compelling the migrant worker to decamp.
The employer then renounces all responsibility for the worker, and the
financial penalties due the state are shifted onto the shoulders of the worker,
who often is unable to leave Lebanon until she or he can pay them off.
Conversely, some migrants may find it to their advantage to flee from a home in
order to work for a higher salary. It would be a mistake to assume that the
migrant is always the victim, when her or his objective in coming to Lebanon is
essentially to earn money.
New legislation must aim to close both types of
abuse down. In the end, the state, by virtue of the fact that it has a
financial stake in work contracts, is an indirect party to any agreement
between employers and migrant workers. Legislation must help to enforce this
stake and ensure that both sides respect contractual obligations.
illegal abuse of migrant workers, including non-payment of salaries, corporal
punishment, rape, and enforced sequestration, is both more complex a problem
and more simple: More complex because it often occurs behind close doors, in
the indistinct realm of human relationships, and is, therefore, more difficult
to expose; and more simple, because it often violates already existing Lebanese
laws, which merely await implementation.
Illegal abuse is perhaps the most
publicized aspect of the employer-employee relationship, since it affects
fundamental human rights. Yet even here, there is often a blurred dividing line
between what is and what isn't considered abusive. Many people may agree that
hitting a domestic worker is off limits to employers. Would they necessarily
agree, however, that Egyptian workers who work twelve hours a day in a gas
station are also being as badly exploited? Some would say 'yes', others 'no',
yet it is far rarer to hear someone complaining of the latter than of the
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5-The state and
The state plays an essential role in
curtailing the illegal abuse of migrants. As we shall see, this means
encouraging state bodies, particularly the police and the judiciary, to do what
they are trained to do: enforce existing laws. However, the state must also
insure that employers are aware of, and implement, the law regarding laborers.
Yet the law is both letter and spirit, and the authorities must seek to
ensure that international labor and human rights standards are implemented.
Whether the law implicitly permits it or not, international norms are clear: in
no way are domestic helpers property, and the law should be unambiguously
implemented in response to more egregious forms of treatment. Nowhere should
manual workers be compelled to work eighteen-hour days, whatever their
willingness to do so. Nowhere should individuals be forced to work without
compensation. These are among the simpler conditions of employment that can be
imposed by the authorities, if there is a will.
The state must also ensure
that its own bodies protect migrant workers and respect the law. In Chapter
Two, a case was highlighted exposing abuse of a domestic migrant worker by
police. This is not a hard and fast rule, however. It is worth mentioning that
one of the individuals involved in helping migrant workers spoke highly of a
senior police officer who assisted her in her activities. Paradoxically,
however, it is precisely because of this absence of absolute rules on behavior
that abuse can take place, since absent too is the predictability accompanying
the law. It is a cliché, though a necessary one, to propose that no
state body be placed above the law in the treatment of migrant workers. As
always, however, it is particularly difficult to challenge a corporate body
such as the police, which tends to impose conformity on its own, in the process
making less likely internal challenges to unlawful behavior.
It is equally
true that the judicial authorities must play a more active role in implementing
laws affecting migrant workers. Increasingly of late, migrants have won legal
cases against Lebanese employers who mistreated them, though this is hardly the
rule. It is also true, however, that senior judicial representatives have
covered, indeed ordered, the illegal arrest and detention of migrant workers,
for personal reasons.
There are several problems at play: First,
procedures allowing migrant workers to challenge abusive employers, agencies,
or state representatives are usually complex, relatively expensive, and offer
no guarantees of success. Second, there appears to be a tendency on the part of
state representatives to dismiss what migrant workers have to say, particularly
when it contradicts the accusation of a Lebanese employer. To be fair, however,
this is no longer as true today as it was a few years ago, as the attitudes of
officials and their relations to networks assisting migrant workers have
evolved. And third, migrants themselves are reluctant to legally take on an
abusive employer, since this may jeopardize their stay in Lebanon and,
therefore, a source of relatively high revenues.
Most of these issues can
be addressed through new and updated policies. Yet one must also recognize that
many of the problems raised affect not only migrant workers, but also Lebanese.
In many respects, migrant workers are victims of a vaster problem, namely the
reform of the Lebanese administration and judiciary. All too often the Lebanese
justify the ambient paralysis by arguing that their country is fresh out of a
war. While the argument loses merit with each additional year of peace, the
mediocrity of the civil service and the often questionable performance of some
in the judiciary are indeed enduring legacies of the war. Administrative and
judicial reform will take time, and among those who are bound to suffer from
any delay are migrant workers, who are among Lebanese society's more vulnerable
groups. They are, however, not alone.
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