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 two
  4. Chapter three

An Assessment of the Condition of
Migrant Workers
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 conditions.
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.
Second, 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 workers' rights.
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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1-A policy vacuum

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.
A 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 ministry.
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.
Implementation of 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.
Accurate 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 migration.
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.
Lebanese governments, 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 problems.
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 throughout society.
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 of these?
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 future.

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3-Agencies and migrants

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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4-Employers and migrants

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.
The 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 former.

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5-The state and migrants

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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