A New Face for the Exploitation of Syrian Workers in Lebanon?

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One of Lebanon's many exploited Syrian workers cleans one of Beirut's highrise towers. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Bou Haidar

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Friday, February 20, 2015

Lebanese businesses depend on Syrian labor, particularly in the building and construction sector, which currently employs around 350,000 Syrian workers, according to estimates by the Lebanese Contractors Syndicate. The workers face harsh conditions on the labor market, providing their services for less than minimum wage, without health care benefits, and it is this exploitation that makes them particularly profitable. Accordingly, the measures and procedures taken by the General Security Directorate prompted a reaction from contractors, who announced their refusal to settle the Syrian workers' conditions as stipulated by Lebanese law, especially in regards to the issuance of work and residence permits, and the payment of required fees to the state.

The General Security Directorate issued a directive on December 31, 2014 — which was amended on January 13, 2015 – formalizing the criteria for the entry and residency of Syrians in Lebanon. Upon the implementation of the directive, the entry of refugees became subject to the discretion of the Ministry of Social Affairs and the directorate. Due to the absence of clear humanitarian criteria, Syrian workers became subject to what looks like the Kafala sponsorship system. At the time, the debate revolved around those directly affected by the new measures — the Syrians — until the issue began to raise the ire of business owners in sectors where Syrian labor is most exploited.

According to section 7 of the General Security Directorate’s decision, for Syrian nationals to qualify for entry into Lebanon, the purpose of their travel must fall under one of the following categories: tourism, business visit, shopping, owner of real estate or tenant in Lebanon, study, transit, medical treatment, or visa application at a foreign embassy. They must also have a Lebanese sponsor, who has agreed to a “pledge of responsibility.” In accordance, businesses are required to obtain work permits from the Ministry of Labor for all of their employees, so they can use the legal crossings from and to Syria.

The main dissenters to the General Security Directorate’s measures are Lebanon’s major contracting and construction companies, whose owners held a meeting on Thursday with Minister of Labor Sejaan Azzi to discuss “Syrian labor in the construction sector, and the impact of the new measures and procedures on the workers.” Based on the comments, the business owners seemed concerned about the potential impact of the measures on the influx of “cheap” labor, and on “accommodation” costs which are not usually covered. These concerns prompted the Lebanese Contractors Syndicate of Public Works and Building to meet with Azzi twice this week in order to reach an “urgent settlement.”

Abdo Sukkariyi, a member of the syndicate board, says that the construction and infrastructure sector comprises at least 350,000 Syrian workers, who are distributed among 3,400 companies: 3,000 in the private sector, and 400 in the public sector. The value of operations for these companies amounts to about $10 billion. The syndicate’s chairman, Fouad al-Khazen, said that unskilled labor in the construction sector consists entirely of Syrians.

The displacement of Syrians helped revitalize the construction sector, in terms of the influx of more labor (United Nations statistics mention an additional 100,000 workers), and the expansion of the labor market because of the projects undertaken by international organizations, such as building water tanks, houses, and supplies. Additionally, there is vigorous competition between the Syrian workers. Sukkariyi notes that the average daily wage of a Syrian guest worker is $20, while a foreman receives $30 per day. He denies that wages have dropped due to the increase in the number of Syrian refugees i.e workers.

Contractors’ concerns and a violation of freedoms

The contractors have a clear complaint: these procedures and measures obligate them to pay fees they did not previously cover, and which they are not willing to cover today. Khazen said that taking extraordinary security measures is understandable under the current circumstances, but points out that these measures negatively affect the construction sector in many ways, which the syndicate laid out in the working paper it presented to Azzi. The meeting on Thursday focused on the additional costs incurred by business owners if the employment of Syrians is regulated, and the time they need to process large numbers of residence and work permits, which might result in “the suspension of their projects.”

According to Sukkariyi, sponsoring a Syrian worker in Lebanon costs $2,000 annually, which includes the cost of work and residence permits, health insurance, and notary contracts. The syndicate suggested that the authorities reconsider the nature and number of required documents, and adopt general documents instead. The syndicate also suggested that the authority issue work licenses and sign work cards, and delegate this task to regional departments operating under the Ministry of Labor, instead of limiting this authority to the minister himself. Azzi considered the second suggestion an encroachment on his authority.

The syndicate found that the measures requiring employers to obtain prior approval through the submission of an individual application form for each worker are inapplicable, since large construction companies employ between 200 and 500 workers per project. The syndicate proposed the issuance of a temporary extraordinary decision whereby companies would only be required to submit an inclusive form comprising the names of all workers in a construction company.

The employers understood that the system in place prior to the new measures (the non-requirement of work and residence permits) was extralegal, and expressed this in their discussions with the minister. So the syndicate would continue its violation of the law, Maroun Helou, a member of the syndicate board, argues that “the government’s sudden concern and implementation of measures without a clear mechanism is not right.”

The contractors complained about the “pledge of responsibility” required of them by the General Security Directorate, which they say makes them “responsible for the workers' activities and anything harmful they might do.” For this reason, the contractors oppose the sponsorship system imposed by these measures, and consider it unfair to them rather than to the workers. The syndicate head even announced that he forbade six Syrian workers working for him to own phones, following a conversation with the General Security, who said the workers may get involved in acts of sabotage if they own phones. The minister of labor objected to this, saying that it violates personal freedoms, but did not criticize the sponsorship system imposed by General Security, which allows employers to control the lives of their employees under various pretexts, including the “maintenance of security.”

Azzi faces the contractors

The minister of labor listened to the contractors’ complaints and summarized their main demand as a desire “to benefit from Syrian workers with the least amount of administrative procedures, the lowest costs, and the least time.” But he pointed out that “[employers in] a multi-million dollar project will not be affected by paying a small portion of the profit to settle the status of their workers.” One contractor responded that “each project employs more than 300 workers.” Azzi laughingly answered: “This means that each project generates millions in profit.”

Khazen says that “a large part of the projects belong to the government, and I think that the government has no interest in stopping its own projects.” The debate between the minister and the contractors got tense when one of them says that he has two projects, each requiring 600 workers, but that the processing of legal documents has been suspended. The minister answered: “When you have 1,000 workers and send the documents of only 17 of them, the processing will certainly be suspended.” Azzi insists that illegal procedures will not be allowed, such as permitting the registration of a number of workers and overlooking the registration of others, and there will not be any “ministerial cover.” He suggested that the issue be referred to the ministerial committee in charge of the refugee file, before discussing it at the Council of Ministers.

The meeting concluded with four proposals: the establishment of a special department, within the syndicate, responsible for processing residence and work permits for all companies; the regulation of the status of workers, whereby required documents for each company would be processed in stages rather than at once; the documents need not include all details of the contracts in order to determine the number of workers, which can be substituted by the submission of a registration report to the syndicate; and the acceleration of the processing of legal papers by the ministry.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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