A sanitation worker employed by Lebanese company Ramco pauses for a picture while working a shift at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. April 6, 2020. (Marwan Tahtah/The Public Source)

A sanitation worker employed by Lebanese company Ramco pauses for a picture while working a shift at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. April 6, 2020. (Marwan Tahtah/The Public Source)

Labor in Lebanon: Between Racism and Capitalist Exploitation

Day 242: Sunday, June 14, 2020 

Over the years, Lebanese prime ministers, cabinet ministers, and other officials have repeatedly promised to create an array of job opportunities. These types of promises abound, but they are usually revoked through the use of racist justifications and by reinforcing hatred toward foreigners. These tactics are aimed at pitting Lebanese labor against migrant labor, as though the two negate each other, and have been an effective method to distract the Lebanese from their problems and from the real reasons behind unemployment. This government-orchestrated propaganda promotes the idea that protecting Lebanese labor begins and ends with combating “illegal” migrant labor;1 it is a rhetoric that attempts to buy time and cover up the profound deficits of the Lebanese state, particularly in its socio-economic structure. 

The Lebanese economy is unproductive and chained to the US dollar and it does not create real and sustainable work opportunities. The economy suffers from a cancer with two major lumps: banks and real estate companies. In addition to the latter, oil, drug, and food importers continue to control the market, despite the rapid collapse of the local currency. It is an economy that stagnates whenever the influx of US dollars by Lebanese citizens working abroad slows down. Moreover, it is an unsaturated economy, which means that it is capable of rapid growth, but only by taking loans, accruing interest, and multiplying debts. This is in part due to the scarcity  and misuse of resources, on the one hand, and the administrative and political corruption on the other, which reflects as a debilitating deficit in the balance of payments. Accordingly, the growth of the Lebanese economy, in its neoliberal (Haririst) formula, is directly proportional to the growth of the external debt. The artificial nature of this growth has become more apparent to the Lebanese, as they realize that it is exclusively linked to an increase in consumption, without taking production into account; that is to say, without a continuous process of creating jobs that allow savings and include comprehensive social and health coverage beyond minimum-wage jobs. 

The final solution for the Lebanese oligarchy, in its attempt to preserve its economic model, is to resort to the International Monetary Fund. This economic paradigm offers abundant profit to a select few families and the colluding financial and political elites, ultimately leading to an inevitable social disaster, and an unprecedented acceleration in the class struggle. 

The natural course of this artificial growth of the neoliberal economy, as experienced in Lebanon, is one of “mendicancy.”  This is exemplified by Paris I, Paris II, Paris III, and CEDRE conferences, but also by the reliance on the issuance of treasury bonds to finance the permanent and accumulated deficit in the state budget. The final solution for the Lebanese oligarchy, in its attempt to preserve its economic model, is to resort to the International Monetary Fund. This economic paradigm offers abundant profit to a select few families and the colluding financial and political elites, ultimately leading to an inevitable social disaster, and an unprecedented acceleration in the class struggle. 

The Lebanese economy in its rentier-capitalist constitution and the incorporated state in its “spoils-based” formation, determine the systemic labor conditions and employment policies, for both local or foreign laborers. In this spoils-based state, work opportunities are not a human right2 but favors obtained through connections to influential figures who intervene on behalf of job seekers. A laborer’s salary mutates from an acquired right to a quasi-charitable practice by the employer. And the worker must appreciate the “sacrifices” his or her employer makes for the sake of that salary. Therefore, the campaigns and plans to “combat illegal foreign labor” on Lebanese territories3 starkly contradict the ruling class’s management of the economy, and could only be perceived as media stunts to manipulate the “patriotic sense” of the Lebanese workforce against all that is not. This incites the Lebanese to fight imaginary battles against the most vulnerable and marginalized within the working class. The real battle, however, ought to be against the social class that has accumulated vast wealth for decades by replacing local labor with less costly migrant labor. And it has done so without any regard or attention to the state’s organizing mechanisms and established working conditions.

The truth that many Lebanese,  especially supporters of right-wing political movements notorious for attacking migrant laborers, refuse to understand, let alone accept, that the increase in foreign labor in Lebanon did not happen “by mistake.” The issue is not about limiting the influx of migrant workers through “quotas.” And even if a law were decreed to “regulate” foreign labor, its application would simply follow suit with Law 174 on banning indoor smoking; it would simply not materialize, and push employers to tighten the noose around migrant workers and further their enslavement. This labor is a lifeline for the exploitative paradigm and concentration of wealth. Migrant workers are forced to work longer hours for a much smaller pay, which doubles pressure on general wages, impacting the purchasing power of the Lebanese. Consequently, this would lead to an increase in the number of daily and contractual Lebanese workers, allowing employers to take full advantage of the surplus value of both local and foreign labor. 

This incites the Lebanese to fight imaginary battles against the most vulnerable and marginalized within the working class. The real battle, however, ought to be against the social class that has accumulated vast wealth for decades by replacing local labor with less costly migrant labor.

Ironically, oligarchy-affiliated media platforms, including its educated and respectable figures, blame migrant workers for exporting US dollars out of the Lebanese market, while failing to note how the same workers augment the wealth of investors who exploit them. These media also fail to mention the immeasurable dollar sum smuggled out of Lebanon, either through money moguls or mafia party channels. This smuggled money represents the value of the money stolen from all workers, Lebanese and migrants alike. Essentially, this is the functional role of the Lebanese state, as one subject to the mechanisms of neoliberal globalization. The free movement of capital is not matched by the free movement of labor. While capital’s freedom of movement around the world is absolute, and the workforce is bound to follow it from one place to another, the state protects capital’s movement on its journey to constantly seek better investment opportunities, but doesn’t provide any form of protection for migrant workers fleeing poverty. To the contrary, the migratory movement of labor is heavily restricted, vilified, and violently suppressed. 

The relations of power and authority, including exploitative relations, cannot be separated from the Lebanese social structure, but is determined by it. The demand for foreign labor is neither arbitrary in various economic sectors, and nor does it contradict local labor. The aggressive behavior of the Lebanese political system against the labor movement is not new; however, it has taken on new forms after inflicting a cruel historic defeat on the trade union movement, and subduing the General Labor Union. It transformed the culture of trade union organization into small offices and branches for political parties, completely detached from the workers' reality. It also fabricated vertical sectarian divisions among the local working class. With its systematic incitement against foreign labor, this system aims to create racial divisions between local and foreign labor, attempting to conceal the grand theft against the entire Lebanese people.

The exploitation that foreign labor is subjected to can be divided into three levels, all of which are tied to the constraints of the Kafala system and the failure of employers to commit to labor law standards in their dealings with migrant workers. The first level is human trafficking and subjugating the worker to forced labor (bonded labor). The second level is intensifying work hours for lesser pay and depriving the worker from holidays and break periods. And the third level is physical and mental maltreatment during work hours, regardless of salary and workload. The vast majority of domestic workers especially endure exploitation on all three levels. 

While capital’s freedom of movement around the world is absolute, and the workforce is bound to follow it from one place to another, the state protects capital’s movement on its journey to constantly seek better investment opportunities, but doesn’t provide any form of protection for migrant workers fleeing poverty.

“Over 250,000 African and Asian migrant domestic workers live in Lebanon and work in private homes; most of them are females. Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are entangled in a web woven by the Kafala system, which is a sponsorship system for migrant domestic workers that is inherently abusive, something that increases their risk of being exploited, forced into labor, and trafficked. It also does not allow them any prospect to seek equity.”4

The issue of the enslaving Kafala system and the excessive exploitation of foreign workers, particularly Syrians in construction and agriculture, Asians and Africans in the hotel and restaurant industry, must be resolved.  Not only are these conditions to be considered from a rights-based perspective, but also through social and political lenses. The production of surplus value by migrant workers must be linked to the Lebanese political economy, questioning how essential actors interact with one another. These actors include the Lebanese state, private institutions, individuals benefiting from recruiting or hiring foreign labor, gangs benefiting from human trafficking, and individuals taking advantage of the situation of workers who have escaped their sponsors. More attention should also be spent on the question of Palestinian labor subjected to heinous forms of exploitation in the informal sector. Palestinians are deprived of the right to work, despite their ability to attain advanced education, and their contribution toward stimulating the economic cycle is disregarded. This cannot be separated from the social structure and the political system that prioritize the interests of investors, encouraging them to exploit these resources and specialized skills to increase the productivity of their projects at the lowest cost possible. 

Serious initiatives have begun to emerge within this large stratum of laborers toward political mobilization. Last April, RAMCO employees went on a large-scale strike, the first of its kind. This action was unprecedented, as this labor group had never dared to strike to demand economic, social, and human rights.

“Although the contracts of foreign laborers at RAMCO stipulate payment in US Dollars, workers state that since November the company has paid them in Lebanese Pounds and in accordance with the official exchange rate of 1500 LP to the dollar. It is a rate that is no longer viable. The Lebanese Pound has lost 60% of its value in the past few months, which means that their families back home can no longer afford their basic needs.”5

It is unacceptable that half of the working class is in a state of complete social and political alienation, which is a manifestation of slavery, as legal, charitable, and human rights bodies work alone on migrant labor issues, almost separately from these workers. 

A unilateral focus on a rights-based perspective for migrant workers cannot produce real change in the policies of the Lebanese state, the labor system, and in the local social and cultural values. Mobilization is needed to push anti-capitalist political groups opposing the neoliberal model to adopt the issues of migrant workers and gradually integrate them in the political process. This can transpire through organizational structures that protect these workers from direct oppression and exploitation by the apparatuses of the state, employers, and racial discrimination campaigns. These structures could also support the active participation of migrant workers in the social and political life, as they comprise half of the working class in Lebanon. It is unacceptable that half of the working class is in a state of complete social and political alienation, which is a manifestation of slavery, as legal, charitable, and human rights bodies work alone on migrant labor issues, almost separately from these workers. How can they produce real change when they carry out this work on behalf of those primarily concerned? And how could change be attained when their process, which consists of legal and rights-based pressure, depends on appealing to the emotions of political decision makers, the influence of international organizations, and without penetrating the social structure?

Labor is a source of wealth. The labor of Lebanese and migrant workers and the work of past generations, in Lebanon and abroad, is a source of wealth and massive capital that was smuggled outside Lebanon. The entire working class is involved, and not only those with small to medium bank deposits. Smuggling money abroad is not construed as an economic “freedom” but is a crime against all workers. It is another crime added to the long list of financial crimes, the exploitation of labor, circumventing laws, weakening the state, and reducing its role to the policing of those who claim their rights. There are no partial solutions when it comes to the labor system and Lebanese economy. The solution must be comprehensive and radical, firmly opposing the neoliberal model (political Harirism) and all its supporters, while acknowledging the value of labor and the rights of migrant workers.

  • 1. This prevailing trend within the Lebanese state can best be expressed through a statement by the head of the Free Patriotic Movement and former Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil on June 8, 2019: “It is natural to defend Lebanese workers against any other foreign worker, whether Syrian, Palestinian, French, Saudi, Iranian, or American. The Lebanese come first."
  • 2. Article 23 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • 3. A campaign launched in 2019 by former Labor Minister Camille Abu Suleiman.
  • 4. "Their House Is My Prison:" Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon." Amnesty International, 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/MDE1800222019ENGLISH.pdf
  • 5. RAMCO Strike a Key Moment for Labor Rights in Lebanon. Human Rights Watch, 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/06/05/ramco-strike-key-moment-labor-right…