NGOs in Lebanon: Abusing Their Workers in the Name of Human Rights
By: Carol Kerbaj
Published Tuesday, July 10, 2012
“Ability to work under stress, alone or in a team, and the ability to multitask.” These are some of the conditions repeated in most job ads for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Lebanon. “Under stress” and “multitasking” might not seem like the kind of expressions that call for closer examination, yet they often tacitly spell worker exploitation.
With a fragile Lebanese economy, many qualified young people look for work in the fastest “growing” sector in Lebanon and that is the NGO sector. Most of these people are forced to accept adverse working conditions under the pretext of working for the public good and supporting important humanitarian causes! Labor rights are seen as nothing but a minute detail that distracts from fundamental goals like “poverty reduction,” “the empowerment of women,” “good governance,” “conflict resolution and the dialogue of civilizations” as well as other such concepts shoved down people’s throats by funders.
Organizations in Lebanon are not new, they were one of the foundations of sectarian pastoral institutions shortly before Lebanon’s independence and the withdrawal of foreign forces in 1946. They also flourished during the war to compensate for the breakdown of the state. But after 1990, and with the rise of structural economic policies globally accompanied by the gradual withdrawal of the welfare state, civil organizations proliferated dramatically. Funds from international donors started pouring in to address the social repercussions of structural changes that occurred in state institutions.
The number of associations registered, according to the Law of Associations, reached 5,623 in 2007. If we exclude from this figure political parties, clubs, scouts and family ties in addition to fictitious or inactive associations then the number would range between 1,200 to 1,500 organizations, according to the 2010 civil society organizations directory.
Open Job Opportunities
Civil society organizations’ fields of activity have varied over the past few years and so have the approaches they take, ranging from charity to services and development. Funding increased and the donors multiplied. This created new job opportunities that are rarely found in the public and private sectors especially for medium-qualified and highly-qualified young people.
For example, the number of job vacancies on the website Lebanon Support (a civil society portal) sometimes reaches about 800 positions, according to the executive director Bassem Chit.
The civil organizations sector brought with it new kinds of professions that are not recognized in the public and private sectors, including human rights trainer, facilitator and advocacy officer. Some Lebanese universities have started to provide disciplines for these jobs to respond to market demand.
As with the private sector, this sector has witnessed a decline in labor earnings... though hidden in its “non-profit” cloak.
It is hard to count the number of employees in these organizations because only a small percentage of them have work contracts that are registered with social security. And even if they have contracts, they often work for short periods of time (depending on the length of the projects), and herein lies the problem. The civil society organizations sector is characterized by an absolute lack of job security and stability.
Chit said that while donors used to operate based on programs which lasted longer and needed a medium-term strategy, the current trend is to fund short-term projects and rely on contractors to cut labor cost.
Maya (not her real name) has ten years experience in civil society organizations, during which she moved between seven different organizations (the longest period she spent at one organization was a year and a half). Throughout those years she only received social security benefits for two years, therefore she was deprived of a large chunk of end of service indemnity. She admits that she has recurring anxiety about funding running out or the project ending. She remembers an incident that happened when she used to work for an organization concerned with women’s rights on a program addressing women’s economic rights, including social security. She says that she felt embarrassed working on this campaign: “How did we have the nerve to work for women’s social security at a time when the organization consisted mostly of women who lacked social security?”
Zeina (not her real name) has worked at many organizations since 2003. She believes that the basic offense lies in the manipulation of concepts and values which legitimizes many violations at work. She explains: “One can not ask for a raise or adhere to certain working hours or calculate overtime... because one’s work is divided between the job and volunteering.”
She says that at one of her jobs she was signing papers stating that her monthly salary was $900 while in reality she was receiving $700. When she complained about it the executive director justified it by saying that the association takes from employees’ salaries to pay for office expenses that were not taken into consideration by the funder in the budget.
Zeina’s case apparently is not unique. Based on the interviews we conducted, the problem is a common one in these organizations even if the excuses differ. Walid (not his real name), for example, has been working for a year at an association concerned with women’s rights. He says that part of his salary was deducted to pay social security contributions in full, including the employer’s contribution!
Zeina says that the problem she experienced most at work was the large number of tasks she was assigned that went beyond the scope of her “job,” under the pretext that part of the work is volunteer-based.
Farah remembers her first work experience in an organization concerned with refugee issues. When she asked her director about working hours, the director responded firmly: “There are no work hours here, we’re all volunteers.” Farah said she couldn’t stay for a long time in this organization as “employees” were on average putting in about 12 hours work a day in addition to working weekends, which was the normal trend. Of course there is no overtime pay because “the funder pays based on the tasks performed, not the hours of work,” says Maya.
The violations do not stop there, according to the editor of the Lebanese Observatory for the rights of Workers and Employees, Ahmad al-Dirani. He says that in addition to the problem of not having contracts and workers being deprived of social security and set work hours, most organizations do not have a mechanism for wage increases and most workers did not get the wage increase that was passed recently.
Furthermore, under the pretext of being secular, some civil society organizations do not commit to all the official religious holidays and do not give vacations. In the last organization where Zeina worked, which was concerned with legal and human rights issues, she was allowed eight days of vacation annually instead of 15 - a clear violation of labor law.
Despite the human rights approach adopted by most civil society organizations, you find a lot of discriminatory practices between employees, whether in hiring or employment conditions. “We have the foreigner complex,” says Maya with a bitter smile. She says that during her work she came across many cases of discrimination between the “locals” and the foreigners. “With the same job description and indentical tasks and qualifications required, there was a $300 difference in wages between a French employee and myself, even though she did not know Arabic.”
Al-Dirani believes that the working conditions of civic association employees are still a lot worse, even though they enjoy job stability due to the flow of funds from religious and sectarian institutions.
Jinan is a nurse at a medical clinic that belongs to a religious organization. She has been working for five years for minimum wage, she has no work contract and does not receive social security benefits or health insurance and not even her yearly vacation.
Samia is in no better a situation. She’s been working for six years in an organization that belongs to a prominent political personality and there too “working hours depend on the work that needs to be done.” She indicates also that she does not have social security or private insurance.
Volunteering... or Cheap Labor?
Most of these violations take place under the guise of volunteering. The United Nations Volunteer Program defines volunteer work as “contributions that individuals make as non-profit, non-wage... action for the well-being of their neighbours, and society at large.”
If we step away from the idealism of this definition and we look at the dynamics of work and relationships between people inside organizations it becomes clear that volunteering has become in many cases synonymous with cheap labor.
The way money is dealt with in these NGOs is made evident in the examples that Walid cited about his work in this field. He saw how money is generously spent on hotels and taxis, so he did not have the audacity to convince target populations, most of them from poor and marginalized areas, to volunteer.
Who’s the Boss?
Labor relations in this field are no doubt ambiguous. The identity of the worker is lost between volunteering and working and the role of the employer is not clearly defined and is lost between the board of directors, the executive director and the funder.
If legally the employer is the administrative body then actual power is likely to lie in the hands of the executive director who is hired by an organization to be in charge of personnel management and to perform daily tasks. That is, the executive director is the decision-maker when it come to the terms and working conditions of the rest of the employees.
For Zeina, the executive director is the boss, meaning he is the person with whom she negotiates for her labor rights while “the role of the administrative body in this respect is often marginal.”
Walid points out that despite the direct daily relationship with his executive director, the funder bears a huge responsibility whether directly or indirectly in terms of determining working conditions.
Based on her experience in dealing with donors, Zeina stressed that in the best case scenario, some funders force management to sign model contracts (that include tasks, duration of contract and salary) but without determining the hours of work, social security, end of service indemnity and mechanisms for complaints.
Maya is sure that most funders do not observe the working conditions at the organizations they deal with and even if they notice violations at work, they turn a blind eye.
It appears then that work relationships are three-pronged and consist of the employee, management and funder. The last party might seem absent but has a lot of influence. If exploitation of workers in the private sector involves reducing their share of added value for the benefit of increasing the corporation’s capital and the investors’ profits, exploitation in civil society organizations consists of reducing labor costs (wages and social security) to invest in projects and activities in order to compete with other organizations and attract more funding.
The ambiguity of labor relationships and the resulting “invisible” exploitation are not the only obstacles to organizing this sector and defending the rights of its workers. The problem also lies in the workers’ way of thinking and the logic of their work that relies on dialogue to “resolve conflicts” and the “we all benefit and no one loses” mentality regardless of who has the authority and the capital.
The question therefore remains, are employees of NGOs who are used to legalizing conflict and diluting it able to engage in a battle to defend their labor rights?
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.