Wretched conditions for Syrian workers

14 April 2009

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A Syrian worker takes a break. Syrians in Lebanon remain the last unregulated labor force. (Brooke Anderson/IRIN)

BEIRUT (IRIN) - Rights and labor groups say almost all the estimated 300,000 Syrians working in Lebanon have no official status, often endure dangerous conditions, and earn about $300 a month doing jobs shunned by most Lebanese.

In 2006, the Labor Ministry issued just 471 work permits to Syrian nationals, meaning the remainder worked unregistered. According to 2008 research by Beirut-based InfoPro, over 75 percent of Syrians in Lebanon work in construction, 15 percent are cleaners and trash collectors, and 10 percent street vendors.

About 15 percent of Syria’s workforce is in Lebanon. They often either live on the construction site where they work or share tiny flats with a dozen other workers.

Rene Matta, general manager of Matta Contracting, a Lebanese company whose workforce is 70 percent Syrian, said Syrian labor in Lebanon “should be more organized, so that people aren’t oppressed.”

Anti-Syrian sentiment has existed in Lebanon ever since the two countries gained independence from France in the 1940s and Syrians worked in agriculture, creating an influx of Muslims that many Christian Lebanese saw as a threat to their country’s sectarian balance.

Syrian workers became the victim of an unprecedented low in relations between the two countries in the wake of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri which many Lebanese blamed on Damascus and which forced Syria to withdraw its military from Lebanon, ending two decades of direct control over its smaller neighbor.

Many Syrians in Lebanon have been attacked, robbed, beaten and sometimes killed over the past four years.

Despite the recent opening of an embassy in Beirut, few Syrian laborers in Lebanon think their labor rights and personal safety will be protected any time soon.

Fear

“If something happened to me, who would I complain to?” asked Eide, an 18-year-old Syrian construction worker who has been living and working in Lebanon for 10 months. Eide said he lives in daily fear of attack by anti-Syrian Lebanese gangs: “It’s not unusual for Lebanese to ask for our ID cards on the street and then take our money because we’re Syrian.”

Mohammed, a Syrian now working as a janitor in a Beirut restaurant, said he had to leave his job last summer because of poor working conditions. After working for several months as a cleaner at a swimming pool, Mohammed told his boss the chemicals he was using were damaging his skin. He said he was sacked on the spot and not paid his final salary.

All Syrian workers interviewed requested that only their first names be published, fearing reprisals for speaking out.

“Socioeconomic racism”

Nadim Houry, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Beirut, refers to the Syrian-Lebanese migrant labor phenomenon as a “marriage of convenience” for the two countries.

Many Lebanese companies save money by hiring Syrian workers, whose contracts can be terminated at any time but who can enter Lebanon without a visa.

“It’s part of Lebanon’s history,” said Houry. “Syrian workers have become scapegoats because they’re perceived as weak. There is an issue of discrimination in Lebanon towards those of lower socioeconomic status. They look down upon poor people from rural areas. It’s a sort of socioeconomic racism.”

In its 2 January edition, Al Akhbar, one of the few Lebanese newspapers to regularly cover the issue, reported that a Syrian worker was robbed at gunpoint by a member of the Lebanese military in civilian clothing. In late December 2008, the same newspaper reported a Syrian had been killed during a robbery near Byblos. In the same month, a Syrian worker of Kurdish origin was found hanged in his own shoe shop in Bar Elias in the Bekaa Valley, eastern Lebanon.

Many incidents go unreported. In interviews with 10 Syrian workers at construction sites throughout Beirut, all said they had been victims of robberies and occasional beatings by Lebanese; all said it had been because they are Syrian; none said they had reported the incidents to the authorities.

“I don’t have any Lebanese friends. I never have,” said one Syrian construction worker. “Why should I? They don’t like us.”

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