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Built by foreign hands

Non-Lebanese an integral part of the country’s workforce and economy

by Executive Staff

Everyone has heard about the Lebanese expatriates who send money back home — a foundation of the country’s economy. But there is also a significant foreign workforce in Lebanon. Domestic workers from South Asia and laborers from Syria constitute at least 20 percent of Lebanon’s workforce. They fill gaps in Lebanon’s employment and (as a group) remit a significant amount of money to their home countries.

“Foreigners here work at jobs that Lebanese won’t do,” says Abdallah Rouzzouk, spokesman for Lebanon’s labor ministry. “It’s the nature of this country.”

According to figures from the Ministry of Labor, there are currently 93,000 registered foreign workers living in Lebanon. Of those, five percent are considered “highly skilled.” The ministry estimates there to be 300,000 foreign workers living in Lebanon.

But most estimates put the total number of foreign workers in Lebanon much higher — at 500,000 to a million. Most are Syrians, who need only their identity cards to enter Lebanon, and are engaged in temporary or seasonal work.

The next largest groups are Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Nepalese, Ethiopians and Sudanese. They account for approximately 20 percent of Lebanon’s workforce. But their incomes are far less than that of their Lebanese counterparts. Average per capita annual income for Lebanon in 2008 was estimated at just more than $11,000, meaning that the $300 per month normally earned by foreign workers is a fraction of what Lebanese nationals earn.

Most foreign workers’ income earned in Lebanon goes toward basic living expenses; they make very few purchases in Lebanon, and about a third of their money goes in remittances sent to their home countries.

According to a Western Union office in Beirut’s Hamra district, foreign workers regularly come to their establishment to transfer money to their home countries. Most of their customers are South Asians, as the Syrians tend to carry the cash they earn back to their country on weekends and holidays. The typical money transfer for foreign workers is $100 per month.

Paying dues

Dipendra Uprety, a Nepalese who works as a chef in Beirut, has lived in Lebanon for 11 years. Like his compatriots, he sends money back home on a regular basis.

“I’m a professional chef, and I’m happy with my salary,” says Uprety, who also volunteers as a social worker at the Nepalese consulate. He’s decided to stay in Lebanon to help other migrant workers. “I’m fine, but there are others who aren’t.”

The majority of foreign workers in Lebanon are unskilled, performing strenuous, labor-intensive and often dangerous jobs. For Syrian men, this usually means working on construction projects. For South Asian women, this commonly entails employment as a domestic worker, often with no vacations or private accommodations. Depending on the situation in their home countries, Lebanon is often the best option, even if it is not always a good one.

“What’s pushing them here is poverty in their countries,” says Semil Esim, senior regional specialist with the International Labor Organization in Beirut.

Once the workers arrive in Lebanon, they usually find themselves in a situation where competition is impossible and loose labor regulations provide few protections to these vulnerable residents.

“Poor governance has created severe distortions in the labor market, such that migrant labor is not usually in the realm of competition with Lebanese labor. The latter has higher educational levels than foreign labor,” says Jad Chaaban, a professor of economics at the American University of Beirut. “More importantly, and in light of the current living conditions in Lebanon, the Lebanese labor force cannot accept the wage levels on offer to the foreign workers.”

Chaaban says most Lebanese wouldn’t work for the $330 per month minimum wage that foreign laborers often settle for. Even if the jobs paid more, Chaaban says there are social stigmas to consider.

“Lebanon has some of the best construction in the world. who does it? The Syrian worker”

Wouldn’t be caught dead…

“The culture of shame surrounding the cleaning, construction and agricultural occupations would tend to cause Lebanese job seekers to avoid these occupations, preferring to emigrate or otherwise remain unemployed.”

There have been few laws to regulate foreign work in Lebanon. In 1964, Lebanon passed the Foreign Labor Organization Law number 17561, requiring foreign workers to register with the government.

In 1993, Syria and Lebanon signed the Agreement for Economic and Social Cooperation and Coordination. The agreement outlines the gradual economic integration between Lebanon and Syria. Six clauses outline free movement of persons, labor, services, goods, capital and transport.

“Syrian workers are really good for Lebanon,” says Rene Matta, general manager of the Beirut-based Matta contracting company, where the workforce is 70 percent Syrian, almost all working low-skilled jobs.

As the system now works, Syrian laborers in Lebanon typically work on a freelance basis, meaning they are often hired on the spot, paid in cash, and their work can be terminated at any time. This non-committal understanding from both sides has served both parties relatively well for the past two decades, as Syrian workers have helped rebuild war-torn Lebanon and unemployed Syrians have earned a living in Lebanon’s construction boom.

“There should be more organization of Syrian workers,” believes Matta. But he acknowledges, “Working the way it is now, it’s hard for there to be regulations because of the high number of Syrians. But I don’t see it happening for another five to 10 years. If regulation started today, it would start a black market of Syrian workers.”

Nadim Houry, a Beirut-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, says Lebanon’s labor unions have lost their effectiveness.

“They no longer have effective gatherings,” he said. “They should be interested in low-skilled jobs. But it’s hard to talk about a labor policy in Lebanon when there isn’t one.”

The contributions of foreign laborers in Lebanon have not gone unnoticed. As Matta puts it, “Lebanon has some of the best construction in the world. Who does it? The Syrian worker.”

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