UN and ILO Conventions
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 two
  4. Chapter three

An Assessment of the Condition of
Migrant Workers
in Lebanon, and Prospects

6-Lebanon and the foreign missions of migrant workers

One disturbing feature of the relationship between the state and migrant workers, is the relatively limited impact embassies (or consulates) have on Lebanese policy affecting their migrant worker nationals. Indeed, neither the Lebanese state nor the embassies appear willing to modify the equilibrium existing between them. Nor do they appear to be willing to consider that this equilibrium can be improved to the better advantage of all sides concerned. We will examine this relationship, and also, later, look into possible ways foreign governments can improve the lot of their migrant nationals in Lebanon.
To be blunt, the limited effectiveness of embassies is often self-inflicted. One problem, which will continue as a source of difficulty for some foreign embassies, is Lebanon's attractiveness as a source of hard currency. For as long as foreign countries depend on remittances from Lebanon, the Lebanese will be able to maintain the upper hand in negotiations - or imbroglios - over migrant issues. This situation, though to Lebanon's advantage, is unhealthy, since it tends to create an unbalanced relationship between the Lebanese authorities and their embassy counterparts - certainly far different than the relationship between the Lebanese and Western embassies. As shown earlier, this relationship may, at times, manifest itself in a profound lack of esteem for the embassies representing migrant workers. This, alas, makes infinitely more complicated joint agreement on conditions favoring the plight of migrant workers.
It is preferable for the sake of migrant workers that the relationship between the Lebanese government and embassies representing them be improved and enhanced. For the moment, neither side, particularly foreign embassies, is willing to rock the boat by raising migrants' problems, which may prove divisive. There are frequent reports of embassies' avoiding forcing a confrontation with the Lebanese over detained migrants workers, despite the poor conditions and frequent long delays in their detentions. And yet, it is clear that some sort of representation on behalf of prisoners could help speed up a legal decision on their fate, or ensure that they are properly treated.
There are two other domains in which foreign embassies and the Lebanese authorities can play a more collaborative role, though this is dependent on both sides' willingness to comply. The first involves migrant contracts. While some embassies have sought to exert greater control over contracts, this has been undermined to a large extent by the presence of many illegal migrants who are without contracts. Two steps are required: first, for embassies to ensure that they have a final say on all contracts, a move which will require Lebanese government acquiescence. And second, for the embassies to devise, with the Lebanese authorities, a procedure to insure that those migrant workers without contracts be provided with a status that either allows them to find legal employment or leave Lebanon. Significantly, the Lebanese government took such measures last summer, giving migrants who arrived legally, but who have since turned illegal, a three-month time frame to regularize their papers, and illegal migrants a period to leave the country.
A second domain where foreign embassies and the Lebanese authorities can collaborate is on migrants' papers. While the confiscation of a migrant's identification papers is unlawful and should be addressed by the Lebanese authorities accordingly, one of the things giving employers power over their migrant employees is the prohibitive cost of acquiring new papers. As noted in Chapter Two, the Lebanese authorities demand a $900 fee to replace travel documents. This often prevents workers from replacing their confiscated documents, in effect making them prisoners in Lebanon.
Foreign embassies must attempt, with the Lebanese, to remedy this situation, since the end-product is the expansion of the illegal migrant worker population in Lebanon. A collaborative effort may seek to find a middle ground, insuring that abused migrant workers may be allowed to leave Lebanon if they so desire, while also making sure that those who should not be allowed to leave - perhaps due to a crime or failure to fulfill a contractual obligation - be detained.
This leads to the more fundamental problem of detention. One of the obstacles preventing the legalization of the status of (non-Syrian) illegal migrant workers is the pervading fear on their part that, if they make their presence known, they will be detained and expelled. As noted in Chapter Two, administrative expulsion is common, even though the law specifies that only judicial expulsion is allowed. Moreover, the Lebanese authorities have not made things simple: a migrant is often liable for back-payment of financial penalties, even if these were defaulted upon by her or his employer.
There is no rule on expulsions, however: sometimes the employee pays, sometimes the employer does, and sometimes NGOs do. Ironically, in most cases the Lebanese government pays for expulsions. On balance, the situation appears to be to Lebanon's disfavor: fear of detention by migrants augments the population of illegal migrants, while actual detention forces the government to take on the added financial burden of caring for those who are incarcerated.
One idea may be for the Lebanese authorities and foreign embassies to set up an ad hoc body to better collaborate. Such a forum would allow the embassies to raise the issues they need to address. A more permanent structure could be established subsequently if required. The groundwork of a new relationship needs to be put in place. For this to happen, there must be a recognition on the part of the Lebanese government that its relationship with countries sending migrant workers is different than with most other countries. This means recognizing that new structures and patterns of bilateral behavior must be introduced. For the moment, however, Lebanon appears to be very far from even as basic an assumption as this.

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7-Embassies and migrant workers

It is a too easy to blame the Lebanese alone for the problems confronting migrant workers. Part of the responsibility must be shared by the embassies representing the workers, who have not always acted (and do not always act) in the best interests of their nationals. Where is there room for improvement?
On several occasions, migrant workers and Lebanese activists encouraged those foreign countries with nationals working in Lebanon to open full-fledged embassies in the country. Their primary motivation was to limit migrants' reliance on local honorary consuls. Workers complained, legitimately, that Lebanese honorary consuls were more interested in exploiting them than providing proper diplomatic services. At the same time, they argued, only the presence of an embassy provided the range of activities and assistance required by relatively sizable migrant worker communities. The expenses involved in opening an embassy, however, are often prohibitive for some of the poorer nations. In that case, diplomatic representatives stationed in other parts of the region must be encouraged to visit Lebanon as often as they can.
The presence of diplomatic representatives is usually indispensable to insure that foreign workers are even moderately well treated. Egypt's strong diplomatic presence is what allowed an agreement to be reached with the Lebanese government in 1997 to legalize tens of thousands of Egyptian workers. Similarly, it is only once the Sri Lanka and Philippines embassies - and the Ethiopian consulate more recently - opened in Beirut that there was an improvement, albeit slow, in the conditions of their nationals. Ghana's ambassador to Lebanon, while he resides in Cairo, was reportedly instrumental in bringing about an agreement between the Lebanese authorities and his government, leading to the release and deportation of Ghanaians who had been detained in Lebanon. This happened, however, because the ambassador physically came to Lebanon to negotiate an agreement.
Embassies must also be more assertive when protecting the legal rights of their nationals, particularly those who have been mistreated, raped, or imprisoned. The evidence suggests that many embassies err on the side of caution when confronted with such situations, since the costs of action are often potentially greater than those of inaction. However, an embassy's bureaucratic timidity vis-à-vis a host government often leads to the gradual undermining of the embassy's effectiveness to the advantage of the host government. This can hardly be to the advantage, or liking, of any foreign mission.
Embassies can also have a significant role to play in legal proceedings involving their migrants. As noted earlier, judicial procedures can be substantially speeded up once a migrant worker who is in prison gains legal representation. To be most effective, this process requires close cooperation with Lebanon's Bar associations, whether in Beirut or North Lebanon, and with non-governmental organizations, who often are best able to mobilize networks of lawyers. One might add that an ad hoc grouping of embassies having large migrant worker communities in Lebanon might be useful, both do deal specifically with legal problems and with other issues common to their nationals.
Yet another role which embassies can and must play is that as a clearing house of information. This can mean various things: an embassy can be a provider of information to migrant workers themselves, who are always in need of facts and advice on their status in a country whose details, and system, most are unaware of. Embassies can also provide information and, when relevant, administrative assistance to those organizations or individuals assisting migrant workers. This is already done to a certain extent, but the process has yet to be fully institutionalized. And, embassies can play a more aggressive role as dispensers of information to media outlets. This is a role that some embassies will play unwillingly, however, since they have no interest in alerting up-and-coming migrants at home of the potential problems which may confront them in Lebanese society. This would make workers less likely to travel and, therefore, threaten the flow of much-needed financial remittances.
This begs the obvious question, however: wouldn't highlighting the plight of abused migrant workers lead to an improvement in their lot in general? After all this would prompt both the migrants' governments and the Lebanese to cooperate in improving workers' conditions. And wouldn't this, in turn, ultimately encourage more workers to travel to Lebanon? The answer is probably 'yes', though one again confronts a problem: Bureaucratic inertia is a powerful force reinforcing the status quo. Tinkering with a functioning system, albeit an imperfect one, may provide only marginal advantages and great potential costs.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to advocate a laissez-faire policy for embassies when there has been, for example, criminal abuse of their nationals. In such cases, one would assume, the media becomes a natural ally for foreign missions whose primary objective should be the defense of the interests of their nationals. Moreover, the highlighting of abuse need not necessarily to lead to a crisis if it is properly managed. If anything, it may compel, as it has in the past, the Lebanese authorities to act more forcefully against unlawful behavior. At the same time, whenever foreign embassies in Lebanon have been suspected back home of objectively siding with those abusing migrant workers, the political backlash has been severe, embarrassing the home authorities and their local representatives.

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8-Assessing the networks of migrant workers

One can argue, again, that the networks of migrant workers have reached an unsettled equilibrium of sorts. In other words, a variety of services are available, diverse forms of assistance are provided, and a division of labor among NGOs in their dealings with migrants is apparent. All this adds up to a situation that is adequate, yet which can be improved.
The Lebanese state can help in this regard. However, given its difficulties, in particular the bloated and under-trained civil service, it would be counterproductive to propose a substantial expansion in its responsibilities regarding migrants. More bureaucracy is undesirable. That is why it would be preferable for the state and non-governmental organizations concerned with migrant affairs, to define optimal means of cooperation that ensure that migrant workers not become too much of a burden on the authorities.
One can start by advancing a proposition: An effective network of NGOs which cares for migrant workers, gathers accurate information on their situation, and is allowed to mediate between the workers and the state, will allow the authorities to limit the problems accompanying the migrants' presence and reduce the state's costs in controlling this presence. What would such an approach entail? Several of the proposals made earlier in this chapter, including more effective implementation of the law, even a streamlining of legal procedures, would greatly reduce the existing burdens on migrant networks, in particular NGO-based assistance networks. That is because many of their efforts and finances go to resolving problems that could otherwise be avoided if the law were properly implemented, or if legal procedures were more accessible.
It may also be time to reflect on the advantages of establishing a more enduring structure bringing together relevant NGOs and state representatives to address migrant workers' issues. Links between the state and NGOs are constant, but they are also, generally, organized on an ad hoc basis. This means that they are inadequate forums for policy-making. A permanent or semi-permanent structure could go hand in hand with the opening of a special government bureau to deal with migrant affairs. While some may argue that a joint NGO-state structure smacks of corporatism, its mandate need not be overbearing. Rather, it could act as a much-needed conduit for the transfer of information and the exchange of ideas.
What of the networks themselves? Financial constraints are always a problem, both for migrant organizations and Lebanese NGOs. This affects a variety of activities, in particular the securing of medical and legal aid, which is often offered by volunteers for free. This is hardly the place to make suggestions on the fundraising capacities of those organizations dealing with migrant workers' affairs. However, the situation suggests that while NGOs do cooperate, there often is considerable room for enhanced coordination. This is in no small part due to the limited means, and the different objectives, of the organizations involved.
For example, the PCAAM network is mostly run by priests and nuns, who devote most if not all of their time to migrant affairs. Their priority, however, is to use the assistance as a forum for Christian spiritual guidance, though this should not be confused with proselytism. In many respects their efforts are admirable, yet the means at their disposal are often meager. This imposes a severe constraint on capacity, and tends to create an informal atmosphere that is humane yet inefficient. Does this mean that such organizations must be done away with? Certainly not. Had it not been specific individuals in the PCAAM network an immense void would exist in migrant workers' assistance networks. However, one can question whether efforts that rely so heavily on well-intentioned individuals have the same staying power as those which would be provided on solider bases. There appears to be room for more structured efforts, which could complement those already existing.
Another observation is that there are very useful existing initiatives which can be expanded upon. For example, the Solidarity newsletter published by the Afro-Asian Migrant Center (AAMC) is a very practical dispenser of information and advice. However, because of limited funds, it is produced on a quarterly basis. A monthly publication, if one were financially possible, would be more useful, since it could further bring together migrants of various backgrounds, while creating an axis for concerted efforts in specific crises.
Similarly, the idea of radio programs can be expanded upon. As the current range of programs are essentially religiously-based, perhaps there is room for more secular programs, which would perhaps appeal more to the majority of migrant workers who are not Christians. In both cases, some sort of supervisory authority would probably be required, so that the media do not become forums for strife, whether between migrants themselves, or between migrants and the Lebanese authorities.
Another interesting idea is migrant self-financing, as shown in the example of the Sri Lankan Welfare Association. While such initiatives are, of necessity, limited in their financial impact, they do build up solidarity networks that can be useful in a variety of circumstances. An essential ingredient in a smoother relationship between migrant workers and their Lebanese employers is the recognition by migrants of their power as a collectivity, at least as regards social, medical, and human rights conditions.
Given the suspicions of the Lebanese authorities towards anything that may constitute a framework for independent political or militant activity, it may be preferable for solidarity networks to be in contact - though not coordinated - with the authorities. Lebanese NGOs may have a role to play in this. Solidarity networks, if allowed to grow, have the advantage of limiting the responsibility of the state, redistributing migrant wealth to migrants, and heightening migrants consciousness of their collective strength. The latter, in turn, will be helpful in the establishment of a new equilibrium between migrant workers and employers.

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9-The 'new slavery' and changing attitudes

Lebanese society is gradually changing for the better in its dealings with and attitudes towards migrant workers. This does not mean that an optimal situation has been reached. However, migrant workers have a more balanced presence in Lebanese society than they did previously. Their networks have developed, several Lebanese and other organizations function on their behalf, and public consciousness has been repeatedly confronted with tales of the abuse suffered particularly by domestic workers. The notion of the 'new slavery' is comprehensible for many more people than was the case before. There is now some embarrassment in having it known that one mistreated a domestic worker.
One thing must be remembered, however: the mistreatment of migrant workers need not imply that they are specifically targeted because of their ethnic characteristics. The accusation that most Lebanese are racists is not a satisfactory explanation for abuse. As one lawyer put it: "You do not, if you are a kindly person, suddenly mistreat your servant because she is of a different color." In other words, the problems facing migrant workers in Lebanon, though linked to an often unhealthy hierarchical situation, are often symptomatic of problems affecting non-Lebanese and Lebanese alike.
Indeed, if an employer beats a domestic worker, the chances are that he would not hesitate to beat his wife or children. If a domestic worker is mistreated by a policeman, then there is a very good chance that so too are Lebanese or other Arab detainees. Migrants may well be paid meager wages, but there are countless examples of Lebanese citizens who, despite the protection of the law, are paid low wages and asked to work for long hours. The treatment an employee receives is, in the end, largely a function of the nature of his or her employer.
With this in mind, one can make a series of general proposals which may help to ensure that migrant workers in Lebanon are less likely of becoming victims of a 'new slavery.' A first step must be to ensure that young Lebanese are educated increasingly in what is considered normative behavior regarding migrant workers. There is considerable evidence, for example, to show that children whose families hire domestic migrants tend to be taken up in the hierarchical relationship that ensues. Like their parents, who indeed often reinforce such attitudes, children become adept at issuing orders. Naturally, any effort to remedy this would be part of larger civics curriculum, affecting not only children's relationships with migrants, but with others in general.
The problem is more complicated for adults employing migrants. There is nothing strictly illegal in physically working a migrant employee for twelve to eighteen hours a day, since migrants are not covered by Lebanese labor law. However, by any most accepted standards of behavior, such treatment is abusive. Can attitudes be changed in this regard? For as long as there is an ample supply of workers willing to work longer hours for less pay, the answer is 'no'. Yet habits have a way of taking shape, even when the laws of the market dictate otherwise. If there is a concerted campaign to lessen working hours by those favoring better working conditions for migrants - perhaps through the media - attitudes may gradually alter. The target of such efforts would be the state, which would gradually be questioned by international organizations concerned with improving migrant labor conditions.
The objective would be to establish more equitable limits for working hours. This should not lead to an assumption, however, that strict rules will be imposed on hours of work. Since most migrant workers are illegal, the primary objective should be to achieve what is achievable: in this case create a wider understanding that workers must be allowed a larger share of leisure time. That is easier said than done, particularly when migrant workers willingly accept the forbidding conditions under which they are made to work.
As one examines possible avenues of policy to improve the lot of migrant workers in Lebanon, a major obstacle appears: the presence in the country of Syrian laborers. Because of Syrian influence over Lebanese affairs, because of the great sensitivity of migrant workers' issues in the Lebanese-Syrian relationship, it is difficult for the Lebanese to develop a new framework updating the rapport between the Lebanese state and all migrant workers. We can agree that the present system works, but that it remains most imperfect. Yet can we insure that any effort to improve the present state of affairs will not generate too great a stress on the system due to the presence of Syrian laborers? Probably not.
The presence of Syrian laborers is a political matter having also social implications. At present it is virtually unmanageable from a policy perspective. This creates an incongruous situation in terms of the authority of the Lebanese state over migrant workers: On the one hand the state has a definite impact on the fate of certain Arab and all non-Arab migrants from Africa and Asia; on the other it has very little to say, or do, on Syrian laborers. In effect, any policy the state currently seeks to develop may potentially affect only the (sizable) minority of migrant workers who are not Syrian. At the same time, all policies, even those that may be helpful, which may significantly alter the status of Syrian migrant workers are usually abandoned.
This bizarre, almost schizophrenic situation has been visible throughout the study. It represents a weakness in the study's methodology, undoubtedly, but more significantly it reflects what a large, self-inflicted policy vacuum the Lebanese authorities are maneuvering in. That is why we must keep in mind that no matter what is done to improve the lot of migrant workers, including those from Syria, there will be severe constraints on the government's margin of maneuverability due to the fact that its policies may often have political implications.

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10- Notes

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.
2. Ibid.
3. For this and subsequent information in the section see Peter Speetjens, "Caritas Provides Help for Migrants of All Nations", the Daily Star, January 20, 1998.
4. Al-'Azariyya, or Lazarists, is simply what the Lebanese call the Daughters of Charity.
5. Interview with Sister Amelia Torres, April 19, 2000.
6. See below.
7. Interview with Sister Amelia Torres, op. cit.
8. The estimates are those of Father Salim Rizkallah.
9. Information for the section comes from an interview with Father Salim Rizkallah, April 19, 2000.
10. For information in this section, see Reem Haddad, "The Safety Net for Those Who Have Furthest to Fall", in the Daily Star, April 21, 2000.
11. Interview with Sister Amelia, op. cit. See, also, Solidarity, April 2000, pp. 8 and 11. The publication is prepared by Afro-Asian migrants in Lebanon, and published at the Afro-Asian Migrant Center.
12. Interview with Father Salim Rizkallah, op. cit.
13. See Solidarity, April 2000, page 4.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Interview with George Assaf, April 25, 2000. Assaf was the person responsible for establishing the Legal Aid Commission, though he no longer heads it.
17. Interview with Father Martin McDermott, February 8, 2000.
18. Ibid. One should also note that the Philippines appeared less willing to sanction abuse of its workers following the much-publicized case of Sarah Balabagan, a housemaid who was accused of murdering her abusive employer in the United Arab Emirates. Balabagan was released in August 1996 following a furor in the Philippines at the death sentence (later commuted) passed against her. See David McMurray, "Recent Trends in Middle East Migration", Middle East Report, Spring 1999, pp.16-19.
19. Interview with Father Salim Rizkallah, op. cit. See also Solidarity, April 2000, page 9.
20. Interview with Sister Amelia, op. cit. The ambassador, Mr. Twumase, visited Lebanon in January 2000. It should be recalled that Ghana has a battalion in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), which means that its interest in affairs in Lebanon is more than marginal. See also Solidarity, April 2000, page 10-11.
21. Interview with Father Martin McDermott, op. cit.
22. The details of the account are taken from Reem Haddad, "Debate Raging Over Insuring Sri Lankans", the Daily Star, June 19, 1999.
23. See Reem Haddad, "Sri Lankans Sort Out Their Insurance Problem", the Daily Star, July 27, 1999.
24. Interview with Father Salim Rizkallah, op. cit.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid. His attitude is, incidentally, shared by certain Sri Lankan migrant workers.

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