||Migrant Workers in Lebanon
- CHAPTER THREE -
- Chapter one
- Chapter two
- Chapter four
The Networks and Activities of
Workers in Lebanon
11-Embassies and migrant
The relations between migrant workers and
their representative missions vary depending on nationality. A number of
factors will determine whether migrants are properly or improperly represented:
physical presence of the embassy (or consul), or, conversely, representation by
a local honorary consul; the degree of pressure migrant-rights groups in
Lebanon can bring to bear on embassies in Beirut or in the home country; and,
perhaps most obviously, the willingness of embassy personnel to intervene on
behalf of their nationals in case of abuse, imprisonment, etc.
number of migrant workers in Lebanon has increased, it has become ever more
difficult for those countries with substantial numbers of workers to avoid
opening embassies in Lebanon. In certain cases, for example that of Sri Lanka,
embassies were opened in response to protests by migrants fed up with the
inadequate representation they were receiving. That is because when an embassy
is absent, the representative is usually a local honorary consul. These consuls
take on the job essentially because it provides financial remuneration. In
several cases, consuls operated, or operate, agencies bringing domestic workers
to Lebanon. There is an obvious conflict of interest here, since the rights of
nationals becomes secondary to the interests of the consuls and the agencies
they own or represent.
The increasing numbers of migrant workers have also
multiplied the potential problems associated with their presence. The response
of the relevant embassies was, on the whole, insufficient initially, though one
must add that the response of the Lebanese authorities was also below par.
There have been serious efforts by several embassies and the Lebanese
authorities to address the more glaring problems. However, work still needs to
In many cases what is needed to solve a given problem is the
proper implementation of Lebanese law. However, the embassies are often
ineffective for three reasons. First, for reasons specific to diplomatic
personnel, there is often indifference to the plight of nationals who are
migrant workers. This can be the result of career calculations, class
prejudice, or bureaucratic snafus. Diplomats, like most bureaucrats, usually
prefer avoiding problems through vigorous intervention on behalf of their
nationals. As we shall see, however, when an embassy's lethargy might provoke a
domestic backlash, the diplomats can be persuaded to act with more
A second problem, associated with the first yet somehow separate,
is financial necessity. As noted in Chapter One, migrant workers are, to many
home countries, a valuable source of hard currency. In their dealings with the
Lebanese government, embassies are often restricted by the fact that their home
governments prefer avoiding crises which may threaten the flow of their
nationals to, and remittances from, Lebanon. This is a potent instrument in the
hand of the Lebanese authorities, and the restrictions placed by the General
Security service on the movement of migrant laborers only augment the anxieties
of foreign embassies.
A third problem, associated with the second, is that
the Lebanese authorities are, generally, unconcerned with punishing abuse of
migrant workers. Indeed, the burden of wrongdoing often falls on the migrant
worker. This is sometimes the case even when administrative problems arise
because the employer has avoided, or skirted, his legal duties as regards the
migrant he sponsored. In such an environment, it is often difficult for
embassies to intervene effectively. Moreover, most countries which send workers
to Lebanon, perhaps with the exceptions of Syria and Egypt, are not considered
powerful enough by the Lebanese to be able to impose respect for their
What has the performance been of individual embassies? In
general terms, one can discern four general tendencies: First, there are those
embassies which have opened or reopened their doors. In the case of the
embassies of the Philippines and Sri Lanka, their reopening was a result, as
noted earlier, of growing dissatisfaction of migrant workers with their fate at
the hands of honorary consuls. The Philippines embassy opened in November 1996,
while the Sri Lanka embassy did so in early 1998. The Philippines embassy is
frequently more effective in protecting its citizens, because it is more
vulnerable to domestic pressures. That is because the coordinator of the PCAAM,
Father Martin McDermott, has close ties to the powerful Roman Catholic church
in the Philippines, which has exerted pressure, when required, on the local
The Ethiopian consulate - the embassy is located in Cairo -
reopened in summer 2000. This was the result of efforts by Father Salim
Rizkallah, who traveled to Addis Abeba to urge the government to replace the
local honorary consul with an Ethiopian representative. Not only was this done,
but the consulate also hired a local lawyer, Roger Hanna, to deal with the
myriad difficulties which crop up between Ethiopian nationals, the Lebanese
authorities, and employers. Significantly. Father Rizkallah also successfully
lobbied the Ethiopian Orthodox church to send a priest to Lebanon.
second tendency has been for governments without diplomatic representation in
Lebanon to follow events from afar. For financial reasons, not all countries
with workers in Lebanon can afford to open a full-scale embassy, or even a
consulate, in Beirut. In such cases, diplomats with responsibility for Lebanon
have, on some occasions, sought to do what they can. For example, this was the
case of the Ghanaian ambassador to Lebanon, who is based in Cairo. Thanks to
his efforts, earlier this year Ghana repatriated, in phases, illegal migrants
who asked to go home. As most of these were detained, the Ghanaian government
thus helped solve a humanitarian problem. This level of interest and
initiative is rare, however.
A third tendency is for an embassy to be open
in Lebanon, but to deny proper representation to some of its citizens for
political reasons. That is the case of the Sudanese embassy. As noted earlier,
most Sudanese in Lebanon are de facto refugees rather than migrant workers,
though there is often overlap between the two, since many are compelled to work
illegally. The government in Sudan is an Islamist one, and is currently waging
a protracted war against predominantly Christian forces in the south of the
country. According to a Catholic priest, the Sudanese conflict has had
repercussions in Lebanon: the Sudanese embassy often avoids intervening on
behalf of its imprisoned Christian nationals.
A fourth tendency is for
migrants to be relatively well represented by embassies which, first, never
closed down in Lebanon, and, second, which represent countries having influence
over the Lebanese authorities. This is the case, for example, of the Egyptian
embassy. Egyptians benefit, additionally, from the fact that they are,
culturally, more similar to the Lebanese than to non-Asian Afro-Asian migrants.
However, this does not prevent abuse of Egyptian workers, nor their arrest and
arbitrary expulsion. Rather, it is a question of degree as to the way Egyptians
are treated and the way nationals from non-Arab Afro-Asian countries are
treated: because Egypt is a regional power, it is more difficult for the
Lebanese authorities to ignore, or play down, protests coming from Cairo.
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13-The case of the $20,000 insurance
One episode illustrating the powerlessness of
some embassies, particularly those of the non-Arab Afro-Asian countries,
occurred in mid-1999. In June, the embassy of Sri Lanka announced that all Sri
Lankan workers entering Lebanon had to be insured. According to Lebanese law, a
migrant worker must be insured by her or his employer for up to $5,000, with
coverage beginning when the worker arrives in Lebanon. The hitch was that
the Sri Lankan embassy insisted that workers be provided with a two-year
comprehensive insurance plan for up to $20,000, be insured before their arrival
in Lebanon, and that employers work with specific insurance companies which
allegedly charged higher than market prices. An unidentified source at the
Lebanese labor ministry was quoted as saying "someone is reaping financial
benefits" from the new conditions.
The Sri Lankan embassy replied that the
allegations were in large part untrue. The embassy had approved two Lebanese
insurance companies and was looking into dealing with ten others, so there was
supposedly no effort to direct employers to specific companies. Furthermore, a
spokesperson for one of the companies insisted that its premiums were, in fact,
below market rates, which was designed to dispel rumors of exaggerated
insurance premiums. As for the two-year $20,000 requirement for the insurance
plan, the embassy argued, first, that as most contracts were for two years, the
proposal sought to ensure migrant workers for the duration; and, second, that
the $5,000 requirement of Lebanese law was far too low to cover treatment of
sick migrants, often obliging the embassy to cover the balance.
response to the embassy's moves, the Lebanese authorities froze the arrival of
Sri Lankan migrant workers. The embassy, under instructions from the Sir Lankan
government backtracked. In July orders were issued to return to the previous
insurance requirements acceptable to the Lebanese.
The episode appeared
to reveal several facets of the complex relationship between embassies
representing migrant workers and the Lebanese authorities. The Sri Lankans
appeared to have been overzealous in their desire to impose new insurance
requirements over and above what Lebanese law requires. Some independent
observers also suggested that foul play may have been involved. Whatever the
cause, the embassy's move was clearly a mistake, even if some of the excuses
put forth by embassy representatives sounded, oddly, convincing.
interesting, however, was the Lebanese backlash. The allegations of corruption,
which may or may not have been true, suggested that an effort was being made to
derail a move potentially bad for business. That is because a comprehensive
insurance package would have made the hiring of Sri Lankans more expensive,
inducing employers to shift towards cheaper migrants from other nationalities.
While one can only speculate as to who was behind the government's response, it
was always clear that those who make a living by 'importing' Sri Lankan
migrants to Lebanon would have lost if the embassy had gotten its way. The
government, rather than negotiate a settlement quietly, took the muscular and
unusual step of cutting off the entry of migrants, effectively threatening to
cut a financial lifeline of Sri Lanka's. The embassy read the writing on the
wall and agreed to the Lebanese demands.
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14-Entertainment and leisure
An essential aspect of the life of all
migrant workers is their ability to enjoy various forms of leisure activities.
Not only does leisure allow workers to rest, it also provides them with the
chance to meet with their compatriots and build up potential networks of
solidarity and assistance. One of the major problems facing abused migrant
workers is their inability to benefit from free time or vacation. This often
underlines the control over some migrant workers' lives by certain employers,
and indeed regulation of leisure time is often used by employers as a main
instrument of authority over a worker.
All too often, the assumption is
that too much free time will not only make an employee more expensive. It will
allow him or her to build up relationships that may end up causing problems -
such as romantic attachments - that will, in turn, end up taking too much of an
employee's time. This is, indeed, a usual, and alas increasingly banal, aspect
of the 'new slavery'.
One of the most noticeable achievement for non-Arab
Afro-Asian migrants has been the organization of weekly radio programs in their
respective languages. Though the programs are not, strictly speaking,
entertainment or leisure activities, as they provide a hefty dosage of religion
and practical advice, they are designed to act as an informal link between
members of migrant workers communities.
The initiative to organize radio
programs for migrants was taken by Father Salim Rizkallah. In 1988, he
persuaded the Voice of Charity, an inter-Christian station located at the Order
of the Apostles in Jounieh, to authorize a radio program for Sri Lankans in
Sinhalese and Tamil. The station provides free air time, is financed by the
church and accepts no advertisements. After Father Salim's initial endeavor,
the effort expanded in 1994: a Tagalog program was added for Filipino workers,
as were programs in Hindi and Malayalam for Indians. In 1996 programs were
added in Akan and Ikba, for West Africans. And in 1998, a program in Amharic
was added for the benefit of Ethiopian migrants.
The programs, which
are approximately 25 minutes long, with the exception of the slightly longer
Ethiopian program, revolve around religious themes. However, it is recognized
by the organizers that migrant workers have more worldly concerns and are not
all Christians. That is why the programs also distribute advice and personal
messages. The response is reportedly good, and, according to Sister Amelia of
the AAMC, who hosts the program in Tagalog, appears to have created a
relationship of sorts between her and her listeners.
It should be added
that, in many respects, the programs continue to remain under the authority of
Father Rizkallah. As he noted in an interview, he does not approve of longer
programs, since it would be difficult for him to control content, as he does
not understand most of the languages employed. He also remarked that he refuses
to mention those migrant events of which he does not personally approve.
While this may seem a trifle cavalier, it does reflect the extent to which the
programs were the fruit of a personal initiative, with all that this implies in
terms of advantages or disadvantages.
Another attempt by migrants to gain
access to the media was the creation of the English-language Solidarity
newsletter, which is published at the AAMC. The newsletter is mostly written by
non-Arab Afro-Asian migrants. Its content, once again, leans heavily towards
the religious, but also includes practical news of the different migrant
communities in Lebanon. The newsletter has a section in which migrants recount
their personal experiences. While the spiritual aspects of these experiences
are emphasized, the accounts are familiar to all those who, because of
financial or family difficulties, came to Lebanon to work as migrants. This is
particularly useful as a means of encouraging migrants to participate in
collective efforts, whether these involve humanitarian issues, human rights,
financial assistance for those in difficulty, etc.
The quality of the
newsletter is remarkably good for an amateur publication. A great deal is fit
into the twenty or so odd pages, and the writing is surprisingly proficient.
Part of the reason is that English is a first or second language for most of
the contributors. This raises another question, however, as to the
accessibility of Solidarity to migrants who speak no English. For most
migrants, English is not a first language, and usually only a weak second
language. That limits somewhat the impact of the AAMC newsletter.
comes to media, certain stores cater specifically to migrant workers from
Africa and Asia, importing publications from their countries. It is also
striking that cable companies, which offer an array of satellite channels from
Europe, the United States, and the Middle East, also frequently offer Indian
stations and international satellite channels broadcasting to South Asia. This
suggests that the cable operators have a sizable market among non-Arab
Afro-Asian workers, many of whom happen to live collectively or alone in rented
apartments, without an employer watching over them.
Migrants also host
general gatherings - some of them organized by those organizations under the
PCAAM umbrella, such as Caritas or the AAMC - and others organized by migrants
themselves. These efforts appear to be irregular in terms of their timing, but
are frequent. For example, in April 2000 Caritas organized a Day of Migrants in
Hazmiyyeh, in collaboration with Father Rizkallah. The AAMC plans to hold a
sports competition in summer 2000 for migrants. One can add to this various
past outings in different parts of Lebanon, organized by Laksehta, for example,
which hired several buses for the occasions. This has been discontinued,
however, apparently because Father Salim is not physically up to it anymore.
Migrants also collaborate between themselves to organize large gatherings.
On specific occasions, for example the Buddhist new year, Sri Lankans will rent
a plot of land, invite professional musicians from back home, and charge for
entry. Such events are not solely organized for Sri Lankans, however. For a
day, or a weekend, the migrants eat, drink, and listen to live entertainment.
Such events are frowned upon by some. Father Rizkallah, for example, refuses to
advertise such gatherings on his radio program. He argues that they are costly,
when it is important for migrants to save their money. It is also true that he
and those like him are uncomfortable with the free-for-all atmosphere at the
gatherings, where copious amounts of alcohol are consumed.
more sedate forms of entertainment are cinema clubs, where migrants can, for a
modest fee, watch videos on a big screen. The AAMC runs a Sunday evening
ciné-club at L£2,000 per entry. As noted above, this serves two
purposes: it provides entertainment and it also brings in money which can go to
helping prisoners or providing funds for food and medical services for detained
migrants. As the AAMC's projection room can receive about 50 people, this means
that up to L£100,000 can be raised in one showing. One should add that
the films are, generally, wholesome fare: for April, May, and June, the AAMC
announced projections of the following films: Joseph and His Brethren, The Sign
of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi, The Iron Will, and Hildegard.
reading of this section, most leisure activities for migrant workers would
appear to be organized under the auspices of religious organizations. That is
partly true, though one should keep in mind that more informal leisure
activities, for which there is little information, do not require an
organizational cover. There are countless types of informal activities, groups,
and sporting events that fall under the general rubric of leisure, and which
are conducted independently by migrants. The ability to engage in such
activities varies wildly, depending on a worker's time constraints, the demands
of employers, and the like. The point here, however, is to stress that informal
activities are usually far more widespread than formal ones.
As to the
religious nature of the more publicized activities, it should not come as a
surprise. In the end, when it comes to on-the-ground dealings with non-Arab
Afro-Asian migrants, it is generally Catholic religious organizations and
individuals who are the most active. Whatever one assumes to be the preferred
way of dealing with migrant workers, those in religious orders will invariably
see their role as primarily a spiritual one, designed specifically to provide
sustenance to those seeking their aid. This may have its shortcomings, but it
is inevitable that in the multifaceted network of relationships between migrant
workers, assistance organizations, and human rights and legal activists, each
side has a specific agenda which need not invariably square with those of other
organizations or organisms. More valuable, however, would be to gauge the
successes of each, and determine whether it advances the cause of migrants in
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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.
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.
Al-'Azariyya, or Lazarists, is simply what the Lebanese call the Daughters of
5. Interview with Sister Amelia Torres, April 19, 2000.
7. Interview with Sister Amelia Torres, op. cit.
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.
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.
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
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.
Interview with Father Salim Rizkallah, op. cit.
26. Ibid. His
attitude is, incidentally, shared by certain Sri Lankan migrant workers.
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