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The Migrant Workers

Migrant Workers in Lebanon
by Michael Young


  1. Preface
  2. Chapter one
  3. Chapter two
  4. Chapter four

The Networks and Activities of
Migrant Workers in Lebanon

11-Embassies and migrant workers

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.
As the 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 be done.
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 vivacity.
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 nationals.
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 embassy.[18]
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.[19]
A 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.[20] 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.[21]
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 premium

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.[22] 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.
In 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.[23]
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.
More 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.[24]
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.[25] 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.
When it 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.[26]
Among the 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.
From a 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 general.

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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.
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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