In early April, about 400 foreign employees of RAMCO, a Lebanese construction, facility, and waste management company, went on strike to demand payment in US dollars and better working conditions. The strike, believed to be the first of its kind among foreign laborers in Lebanon, could set an example for other groups of workers demanding social and economic rights.
Although RAMCO’s foreign workers have contracts in US dollars, workers say that since November, the company had been paying them in Lebanese lira at the now-defunct official exchange rate of 1,500 Lebanese lira to the dollar. Between October 2019 and May this year, the lira has lost more than 60 percent of its value on the parallel exchange market, meaning that their families back home are now unable to afford basic necessities. Walid Bou Saad, RAMCO’s director, confirmed to Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the company was paying workers in Lebanese lira, saying that this was because the company itself was receiving its payments from the Lebanese government in the local currency.
The workers eat and sleep on company premises and say RAMCO retains their passports and other identification documents; HRW confirmed the latter with Bou Saad. The workers also say that they are denied the minimum wage and days off. Bou Saad tells HRW the workers are receiving one day off per week as the labor law stipulates, and that their average salary is $400 per month—the legal minimum wage in Lebanon is LL675,000 ($450 at the official exchange rate).
The workers called the strike on April 2. When RAMCO employees blocked roads outside company premises on May 12 and prevented the garbage trucks from leaving, riot police were called in. Videos circulating on social media show the riot police launching tear gas and beating the workers. A small number of workers appear to have destroyed company property. A week later, on May 20, the Bangladeshi embassy in Beirut announced that RAMCO had negotiated a temporary deal with the workers for an increase in their salaries, details of which remain unclear.
Although Lebanese labor law does not specifically exclude foreigners, the protections it affords workers have not been consistently applied for migrants. Like Lebanese workers, foreign workers are entitled to the minimum wage, one day off per week, and two weeks of paid holiday per year, yet many employers do not abide by these standards. Migrant workers subject to the kafala (sponsorship) system are particularly vulnerable to abuse as their visas are tied to their employers, meaning they cannot leave or change jobs without their employer’s consent—putting them at risk of exploitation. HRW routinely documents reports of abuses against migrant workers, including non-payment of wages, forced confinement, refusal to provide time off, and verbal and physical abuse.
The labor law also discriminates against foreign workers with regard to union membership. While article 92 of the labor code allows some foreign workers to join unions and associations, they are denied the right to elect or be elected as union representatives. Lebanon has arrested and deported migrants who engaged in organizing around migrant worker rights. Such practices violate international human rights law, which requires all countries to respect the rights of everyone in their territory to freedom of association, without discrimination.
The RAMCO workers’ strike was unprecedented. Lea Bou Khater, a labor movement specialist, says that, “in Lebanon’s history, there has never been a strike like this among foreign workers, both in terms of the number of workers involved and the length of the collective action,” arguing that it could be significant for the entire private sector. She tells HRW that a variety of factors, including restrictive labor market features, Lebanon’s legal framework, and the internal organization and structure of the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers help explain why less than 6 percent of Lebanon’s labor force are represented by this umbrella union and why such strikes are rare in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s October Revolution was largely driven by the struggle for social and economic rights. If the most marginalized workers can organize around their shared interests, then other groups can too. Workers and professionals have already started to create alternative syndicates and unions—with their own by-laws and organizational structures—to consolidate the gains of the revolution and to bypass existing ineffective unions that have been widely co-opted by political elites.
This cross-sectarian, interest-based mobilization may be the best method to dismantle a corrupt, sectarian-based ‘spoils system’ and achieve social justice. This should begin with ensuring that the most marginalized workers are empowered, including by abolishing the abusive kafala system.