Dignity at Stake: Challenges to Accessing Decent Work in Lebanon

from Danish Refugee Council, ACTED, CARE, Oxfam, Save the Children
Published on 31 May 2019 View Original


With a history of conflict and one of the highest rates of wealth inequality in the world, Lebanon already faced considerable challenges prior to the impacts of the Syria crisis: gaps in public service delivery, unemployment, poverty, chronic governance issues, corruption, gender inequality, and a lack of social protection mechanisms.
High GDP growth rates in the past did not translate into enough job creation to keep up with the number of Lebanese entering the labour market, and those jobs that were created were mainly low-skilled. Both factors have contributed to the persistence of high poverty rates, despite Lebanon being a middle income country. The Syria crisis has exacerbated pre-existing labour market challenges. Since the onset of the crisis in 2011, GDP growth has fallen from an average of 9% per year to less than 2% per year, exports are estimated to have decreased by one-third, and key economic sectors such as tourism have suffered. In addition, Lebanon now hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world: an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and more than 30,000 Palestine refugees from Syria (PRS), alongside a pre-existing population of nearly 280,000 Palestine refugees in Lebanon (PRL).
Within this already complex political, demographic, and economic context, major challenges exist to establishing a decent work environment for all workers in Lebanon, including: gaps and contradictions in the legal framework, little enforcement of working conditions and social protection mechanisms, entrenched discrimination on the basis of gender and national origin, barriers to workers accessing legal redress, and a general lack of awareness of workers’ rights. Further complicating the situation is the fact that the Lebanese economy has a very high (and increasing) level of informality, and a significant share of the Lebanese labour market has long been reliant on poorly protected non-Lebanese workers (an estimated 200,000-600,000 Syrians worked informally in Lebanon prior to the crisis and the country currently hosts more than 200,000 migrant workers from Asia and Africa under the kafala system).
Research and analysis conducted by Oxfam in 2017 as part of the LEADERS consortium in Lebanon points to critical gaps with respect to contracts, minimum wage, and social protections through the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). With respect to the minimum wage, it is both poorly enforced and set at an amount that is inadequate to keep families out of poverty. With respect to the NSSF, it fails to provide some key social protections (such as unemployment benefits and healthcare for retirees) and entire large groups of workers (such as self-employed workers and agricultural workers) are excluded from participating in or benefiting from it at all.
In addition, poor enforcement means that many workers who are eligible for NSSF are not registered in the system by their employers: approximately half of the Lebanese respondents in Oxfam’s research with workers in the construction, food services and agro-industry sectors in the Bekaa Valley reported not being registered with NSSF.
Only 17% of respondents in Oxfam’s research in the Bekaa Valley had written contracts. Lebanese law allows for employment contracts to be written or verbal, and nearly a third of respondents reported having verbal contracts. However, as proving the existence of a verbal contract can be difficult, in practice these undocumented contracts provide little or no protection to the worker.
In addition, half of the research respondents reported having no contract at all. These respondents were more likely to be Syrian, have lower levels of education, and/ or work in a small or micro enterprises. The research also showed that having a contract – the more formal the better – makes a real difference with respect to decent work: respondents with written or verbal contracts were less likely to be paid less than the minimum wage and more likely to be registered with NSSF.
Gender discrimination is built into the system. Oxfam’s 2017 working conditions research in the Bekaa Valley found that women systematically earn less than men in the agro-industry and food services sectors. Despite Labour Law reforms that were intended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender, mechanisms were not put in place to reduce unfair practices, there are no protections against sexual harassment in the workplace, and certain aspects of the legal framework remain gender discriminatory. A prime example of this is that while the NSSF requires women to pay in the same amount as men, it offers women less remuneration and less family coverage than men, solely on the basis of gender. Oxfam’s 2016 social protection research also found that homebased work – which is not covered by NSSF – leaves many women without health or maternity benefits when they seek income earning opportunities that enable them to simultaneously meet their caretaker responsibilities.
Discrimination against refugees and other vulnerable non-Lebanese workers is also part of the system. Palestine Refugees from Lebanon (PRL) face serious difficulties in obtaining work permits, despite that they have been born in Lebanon and lived in the country their entire lives. If they obtain a work permit, they are required to pay in the same amount to NSSF as Lebanese citizens, but do not receive the same benefits out (if they receive any benefits at all). In addition, a large number of professions are reserved for Lebanese citizens, and even PRL are barred from more than 20 types of work, such as engineering, medicine, accounting, and law. Syrian refugees are even more restricted to only the agricultural, construction and sanitation sectors. Furthermore, agricultural work and domestic work – both of which are dominated by vulnerable non-Lebanese workers – are systematically excluded from the protections of the Labour Law.
Syrians have long worked informally in Lebanon, generally in poor conditions and with little or no protection.
However, in the past Syrians had freedom of mobility in Lebanon and were able to return to their home country if necessary. Now, nearly all Syrians in Lebanon are refugees, an estimated 80% of whom lack valid residence permits, and for whom returning to Syria is not a safe option. As a result of the government’s response to the refugee influx, the economic activity of Syrian refugees is currently de facto regulated by the framework governing Syrian residence in Lebanon and Ministry of Labour Decisions indicating the sectors in which Syrians are permitted to work. At the beginning of 2015, the Government of Lebanon introduced new regulations which provide two main pathways for Syrians to obtain residence: 1) on the basis of a valid UNHCR registration certificate (if they are among the roughly two-thirds of refugees who have one), or 2) on the basis of sponsorship by a Lebanese citizen. Oxfam’s working conditions research in the Bekaa Valley found that although just over half of the Syrian refugee respondents were registered with UNHCR, all of the Syrian refugee respondents who have residence permits have them through sponsorship (i.e., not via their UNHCR certificate). This confirms observations from protection monitoring, which has found that it is extremely difficult for refugees who are working (or suspected of working) to obtain residence on the basis of UNHCR registration.
The current residency framework is such that Syrian refugees are subjected to workplace exploitation regardless if they are working without a residence permit or if they are working on a sponsorship residency. For refugees who lack valid residence permits, this is a criminal offence for which they can be arrested. This makes them vulnerable to arrest when they move to find work, and also vulnerable to exploitation by employers because they can be reported to the authorities for any reason.
For refugees who have residence via sponsorship, the sponsor is responsible for their legal status, work permission, healthcare and accommodation, and thus holds considerable control over the refugee. Sponsored refugees report being required to abide by certain exploitative conditions to maintain their sponsorship (and hence their residence). Significantly, Oxfam’s research in the Bekaa Valley found that Syrian refugee respondents with a sponsor were more likely to be paid less than minimum wage (79%) than Syrian refugee respondents who do not have a sponsor (49%), despite that the latter are working without valid residence permits.
The results of policies that discriminate against refugees are evident: Oxfam’s research found that while 30% of Lebanese respondents had written contracts, only 4% of Syrian respondents did; and in 2012 ILO found that less than 20% of PRL workers had written contracts.
Similarly, Oxfam’s research found that Syrian workers systematically earn less than Lebanese workers across all three economic sectors surveyed: 75% of Syrian respondents reported earning less than the minimum wage, compared to 39% of Lebanese respondents. Syrian workers are also more likely to work longer hours than Lebanese, which is linked to the fact that many Syrians are confined to working in sectors such as construction and agriculture, which report long working hours overall.
In addition, comparisons between cities in the Bekaa Valley that have quite different percentages of Syrians with sponsorship appear to indicate that the sponsorship system does indeed drive worker wages down.
There are mechanisms which are intended to ensure enforcement of the Labour Law and to provide workers with access to redress in the case of violations. However, many of the key bodies that are intended to enforce the law and adjudicate disputes have either not been properly activated or not been properly capacitated to fulfil their roles. In addition, many workers and employers are unaware of the rights workers are entitled to and/or the pathways for legal redress: 86% of respondents in Oxfam’s research in the construction, food services and agro-industry sectors were unaware of the legal appeal mechanisms that are available.
Workers face both formal and informal barriers to accessing redress mechanisms. One major barrier is that workers without written contracts need to be able to prove the existence of a verbal contract, which is often very difficult to do. Power dynamics also create a barrier to workers raising issues and accessing redress.
Civil society organizations active in worker rights report that both Lebanese and non-Lebanese workers feel unable to confront or challenge an employer who has (or is perceived to have) more power and connections within Lebanon’s formal and informal political systems. These organizations also report that workers have a general lack of faith in the impartiality of the judiciary and a lack of trust in public institutions. Vulnerable non-Lebanese workers face even further barriers. Refugees who lack valid residence can be arrested if they approach judicial or other authorities about workplace violations, while refugees under sponsorship who attempt to seek redress for violations by an employer-sponsor could face threats to withdraw the sponsorship (thus removing the refugee’s residence status and leaving them vulnerable to arrest).


The Government of Lebanon should undertake necessary reforms and improvements to ensure that key labour protections are extended to all Lebanese and non-Lebanese workers in Lebanon. Areas for improvement include:

• Entire groups of workers should not be categorically excluded from the Labour Law protections based on place of birth, ethnicity, gender or other parts of their identity.

• The minimum wage needs to be increased in a systematic manner that ensures it is in proportion to the cost of living.

• The NSSF needs to be reformed so that it no longer discriminates on the basis of gender or national origin, and so that it provides adequate coverage to all workers and retirees.

• The restrictions and discriminatory regulations limiting PRL access to the labour market and social protection should be lifted.

• The sponsorship system for Syrian refugees should be cancelled, and refugees provided with a form of legal status that protects their basic rights and allows them to access work.

• The MOL inspectorate and other key inspection and enforcement bodies need to be properly resourced and the priorities of inspectors need to be clearly oriented towards ensuring employer compliance with the law.
In particular, enforcement of the minimum wage and NSSF enrollment must be improved.

• Bodies charged with upholding workers’ rights and resolving labour disputes, such as Arbitration Councils, need to be more accessible to workers and fully capacitated. Workers should be protected against the threat of arrest or retaliation when seeking redress for workplace violations.
The necessary changes to the legal and enforcement framework will take considerable advocacy, resources, political will, and time. Donors and the international community must support the Government of Lebanon to improve the legal framework and enforcement mechanisms around decent work. Simultaneously, donors and the international community should support interim measures by building robust worker protection incentives/disincentives and independent monitoring into job creation, economic development and infrastructure programs that are funded in whole or in part through grants or concessional financing.
Civil society organizations must advocate strongly and collectively towards the Government of Lebanon, international donors, and the private sector for reforms and measures that will help ensure worker protection. In addition, NGOs should take action within their own programs to help promote access to decent work:

• Monitoring: Civil society plays a critical watch dog role.
NGOs engaged in human rights, refugee protection, gender justice, and/or access to decent work should seek to establish a more systematic way to share information, refer cases to one another, and undertake joint advocacy.

• Awareness Raising: NGOs should promote awareness of workers’ rights, minimum workplace standards, and redress mechanisms among Lebanese and non-Lebanese workers and employers.

• Promoting Documentation: NGOs should promote the importance of written contracts and provide workers and employers with contract templates. NGOs should also seek out alternative forms of documentation that may be more acceptable to the employer and still enable workers to prove the existence of a contract.

• Mediation: NGOs can provide a mediation role between employers and workers, or can provide legal support to workers to undertake arbitration or mediation with the employer.