BEIRUT: Under a highway overpass connecting East from West Beirut a group of Syrian laborers sit waiting for a bus to arrive offering a day’s work. Many days, there isn’t enough room on the bus for everyone.
Since the outbreak of conflict in Syria in March 2011, over 100,000 Syrian refugees have entered Lebanon and registered with the UNHCR, along with thousands more who are unregistered.
To support their families, many have sought work as laborers in Lebanon’s construction industry. The consequent swelling of the labor work force has made it increasingly difficult to find regular work.“Maybe you’ll get one day of work and then three days without,” explains Abdullah, 26, from Deir Ezzor. “Sometimes it is difficult to pay rent. We live month-to-month.”
Finding regular work is not the only issue. The informal nature of employment in the construction sector throws up a host of problems, beyond simply a few missing hard hats.
The majority of foreign Arabs, mainly Syrian, working as laborers in Lebanon enter the country legally with visas, leaving every six months for their renewal. However, the nature of their employment tends to be cash-in-hand, strictly outside a legal framework, as laborers do not register with the Labor Ministry.
As there is no contractual basis for their employment, in the occurrence of an injury sustained at the workplace compensation mechanisms are discernable by their absence.
“This is a huge problem,” says Azfar Khan, an international labor migration specialist at the International Labor Organization.
“Because they are willing to accept lower wages, foreign workers are generally employed by firms to cut costs and increase profitability margins ... Because of their irregular status they are not covered by labor laws – so the provisions of the labor code do not apply to them.”
Youssef Azzam, head of the Safe Building Alliance, pinpoints a lack of implementation of legislation as the major pitfall in Lebanon’s construction industry. Azzam links this to a lack of manpower within the Labor Ministry.
He points out that while legislation (Decree 11802) governing health and safety in the workplace was established by the government in 2005, only nine employees in the ministry oversee their implementation across all of Lebanon’s labor fields.
Amin al-Wreidat, chief technical adviser on labor inspection projects at the ILO’s regional office, is similarly critical of a lack of implementation.
“In Lebanon there are too few labor inspectors, they are often poorly trained and lack incentives and logistical support,” Wreidat says. “In addition, the Labor Ministry lacks a database of enterprises under its purview, without which inspection activities cannot be properly planned.”
These are charges accepted by the Labor Ministry. Ziad Saleh, a representative of the ministry, says problems are caused not by a lack of financial resources, but by a lack of management and as a result of the informal nature of the construction sector.
“This is not a formal sector in Lebanon,” Saleh says. “The companies try to make the maximum profit by employing foreign laborers. The major firms obey international standards of practice, but the fact that there are companies working in construction without the knowledge of the Labor Ministry is a big problem.”
Saleh highlights the fact that the Labor Ministry is currently working with the ILO to develop strategies to better implement labor laws.
A potential alternative to the current system, proposed by the Safe Building Alliance, would see jurisdiction for the enforcement of health and safety standards fall to the municipalities. However, Saleh feels that given current political and economic realities in Lebanon, revising labor laws with regard to foreign workers is not a priority.
“Currently a third of Lebanese are not covered by the NSFF [National Social Security Fund]. Given the fact that Lebanese citizens are not even insured, it is difficult to press for insurance for foreign workers.”
According to Azzam most contractors buy a form of umbrella insurance that covers all laborers working on a particular site.
However, he points out that more often than not the lack of a legal contractual basis to employment renders the system deeply flawed, since employers are in a position to claim that a particular injury did not occur on site: “They can easily claim that the injured person was not working there. There is no contractual proof.”
Waiting for a bus to arrive, Abdullah and Mahmoud, 24 – also from Deir Ezzor – say that injuries are common on construction sites. They both say that employees rarely provide any form of medical insurance in the case of injury, forcing them to pay from their own pocket: a problematic affair when wages for a day’s work are between LL15,000 and LL25,000.
“Sometimes they might give someone $10 [for an injury], but what can they do with that?” Mahmoud says.
A British employee of a major Gulf construction firm with projects throughout the Middle East spoke to The Daily Star on condition of anonymity. Since beginning work on a site in Beirut at the start of 2012, he says there have been numerous health and safety incidents, including at least five deaths.
“Without a doubt there is a certain blasé attitude to the value of human life,” he says.
Azzam states that the Labor Ministry lacks accurate records of the number of deaths that occur in the construction industry each year. He points out that contractors would prefer to sweep such problems under the rug to avoid tainting their reputations.
The majority of the time, employers look to settle out of court, giving the aggrieved family a small sum in compensation – usually around $2,000 – and facilitating the return of the deceased’s body to their family.
Sitting nearby Abdullah and Mahmoud, Hamad – from Aleppo – tells of how he witnessed the death of a colleague two years ago.
“He was working on the sixth floor of a building fitting electricity cables. He didn’t have a harness, and he fell and died,” recalls Hamad, who says the company in charge of the site helped return the deceased’s remains to Syria. He does not know if any form of compensation was paid to the family.
“Because they are foreigners, their deaths go unrecorded,” Azzam says. “For example, you can easily find statistics for the number of people who die in road accidents because the majority of victims are Lebanese.”
Saleh says that if a death occurs on site, the deceased’s family should report directly to the Labor Ministry who – in conjunction with the ISF and Justice Ministry – could investigate the case. However, if the deceased was not registered with the Labor Ministry and his family is based outside of Lebanon, then such avenues are unlikely to be pursued.
Khan points out that the lack of labor unions for foreign laborers further works against their interests.
“If the Lebanese government implemented the law, then problems would be significantly minimized. Irregular workers should be regularized to be covered by the labor law and be able to unionize to protect their interests. Without such groups, the position of construction workers will remain precarious.”
Under the overpass, the assembled group of laborers sit in stoic silence when asked what measures the government could introduce to improve their employment situation. After a moment Hamad – the eldest of the group – offers a response.
“I don’t think they really care, because we are foreigners.” He words are met with murmurs of assent.