Shadow City: Migrant Workers in Beirut

By Helen MackreathMay 13, 2015

Shadow City: Migrant Workers in Beirut

Photograph by Patrick Sykes. All rights reserved.


THIS IS THE CHRISTIAN PART of the city. On a summer’s day it feels like the air is sticky enough to sculpt in your hand. There is lightening but no thunder. Life snarls in fits of exhaust from Mercedes on potholed roads; passersby are listless. Migrant workers are not necessarily more prevalent in this part of the city, but their presence serves as a contrast with the wealth of the area.

Here are some particulars of Beirut: the red lights atop the gun barrel monument of a building, shooting into the sky; the elderly, disabled couple who walk along Gemmayzeh Street every day hand in hand, guiding each other, although both are as useless as the other — he hunched and she crippled. Children play in streets of white-washed light watched by Virginal icons amid wafts of hidden kitchens. Clouds form strange patterns at night.

This is a place where slavery exists.


Migrant workers have been increasing in number in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990. Approximately a quarter of a million currently live in the country, 5.6 percent of the pre-Syrian refugee population. During the ’90s, non-Arab women, mainly from Asia, increasingly replaced Arab domestic workers (housemaids are referred to colloquially as “Sri Lanki,” regardless of their nationality). As a result of the kafala (sponsorship system) their only legal protection is in a contract they sign with their employer, and this is often in a language they don’t understand, leaving them vulnerable to having their passports, and their freedom, taken away. They are victims of non-payment of wages, forced confinement, and physical and sexual abuse. They are excluded from labor protection laws and any rights to a weekly day of rest, paid leave, or worker compensation.

The government is not on their side either. “While officially [confiscating a migrant worker’s passport] is not allowed, we usually turn a blind eye to these things,” says one government official, unofficially. An average of one migrant domestic worker dies every week, according to Human Rights Watch, mostly from suicide or attempting to escape abusive employers.

There’s a migrant lady who sits with her mistress for several hours every day on the balcony opposite mine. The mistress is cast in silence in a wheelchair, overlooking the turquoise shutters next door and the dog on its ribbon of balcony space below. Their floor is the one above ours, so the light under the pale white of her chin is visible. Maybe she can also see the shimmer of light in the willow tree from the angle of their balcony, as from my side; the sun casts the leaves in plates of gold and lime at a certain time of the afternoon. The mistress screams with madness at night, plagued by a disease of the mind. The migrant lady must give up every waking, and presumably sleeping, moment to care for her.

Sometimes the migrant lady sits next to her in silence; sometimes she leans over the edge of the railings directing a continuous stream of words at the opposite flat, one floor above mine. It’s possible that there’s no one there, and she’s playing a game for herself to ground her sanity. But I know there is at least one of “her” in every flat in my building and most buildings in the neighborhood. The elderly live in string vests on narrow balconies; the mid-afternoon chatter of their maids colors the air with as much vibrancy as car horns and revving engines.

In many countries in the region, labor migration is a structural part of the economy. Employers exploit the large number of migrants willing to work by paying them cheaper wages than national workers would demand. Migrant workers are particularly prevalent in the Gulf, where the booming construction industry is powered by cheap labor. In Lebanon, domestic service is as ingrained as in other parts of the world and has been around for centuries. According to an academic report into the history of the practice, produced by Dr. Jureidini, a Lebanese man doing business in the country in 1905 “brought” a 12-year-old Ethiopian girl (known as “Sitti Mabruka,” the “preferred grandmother”); she was not paid a salary but treated as one of the family until her death. Prior to 1991 it was more common for fellow Arabs (Lebanese or Palestinian women) to carry out domestic labor, which often generated reciprocal obligations toward the worker and her family. Today, this relationship has been replaced by one of a more sterile “employer-employee” nature, in which there is little space for the welfare of the worker.

Beirut is made up of different districts, which broadly correspond to different sects. The Christian and Armenian populations largely live in the East, Sunni Muslims in the West, and Shia Muslims in the South, while the central “Downtown,” still bearing the scars of the 15-year war that ended in 1990, remains empty of anything other than corporate development, offices, and high-end shops. The city is traditionally wealthy, indeed has a reputation as being the “playground” of the Middle Eastern rich (although the neighboring Syrian war and political instability are draining it of much needed investment). This wealth feeds a market for construction and domestic servitude, both of which attract a migrant labor force. Prior to the war in Syria, it had also attracted an increasingly Western-tourist population, lured by the cosmopolitan and relaxed nature of the city. But this tourist influx, while increasing scrutiny into human rights abuses, has not affected the situation of migrant workers, other than to increase demand for their services. Migrant workers occupy all districts, although domestic workers are particularly visible in the wealthiest, Christian district, where uniformed maids are common sights walking dogs or well-dressed children to and from school.

In this part of Beirut, the Christian side, everyone watches everyone else play out the motions of their day. Here, the old couples watch from the balcony; the old men watch on wooden seats from the pavement; the bespectacled man massages rosemary beads as he watches women pass, leaning against the same spot every day; the mechanics from under cars, the odd soldier on duty. They don’t watch the migrant workers. They are invisible or, if not that, objects of lust to be leered at, not watched. The residents here play out their lives in close proximity to them, but they’re only shadow puppets to the wider cast. Take the snack shop on the corner owned by a small man who spends his days behind the counter. He flirts with young women, jokes with young men, exchanges silences of solidarity with older customers; but once I heard an exchange with a young Sri Lankan woman when his act dropped. It went something like her asking for change and he reminding her, not gently, that she had no rights and her passport could be taken away at any moment.

The Kafala (sponsorship) system originated in Bedouin customs of giving strangers temporary protection. Today it is the noose around the neck of human rights. Introduced in the 1946 legal code, the system places migrant workers entirely under the jurisdiction of their employer, or “sponsor.” If they should leave their sponsor, no matter for what reason, they automatically lose their legal status and can be detained and deported. There is no other power to which to turn, not even the Lebanese legal system. Major amendments to the Labor Law, proposed in 2012 by then Minister of Labor Charbel Nahas, were not adopted for bureaucratic reasons. Some things are beginning to change, with migrant workers filing complaints with greater frequency (10 years ago even this was forbidden), but it’s a slow process. Migrant domestic workers have been pushing to form a labor union in Lebanon, which would be the first of its kind in the Arab world, but it’s already been three years in the planning. Lebanon’s Labor Minister, Sejaan Azzi, has said that the current law does not allow foreigners to set up such a union, although the workers are operating under the umbrella of the National Federation of Labor Unions (FENASOL), with the support of the International Labour Organization (ILO).


Migrant workers know about airports: the long wait in noiseless, airless, dirtless limbo, defenseless in the liminal space between two worlds. Beirut airport, with the triangle tails of green cedar trees lined up on the runways against the rising mountain horizon and white dots of homes, is not an especially remarkable entrance to their new lives. When they enter, often in bulk, in transit from the Gulf from their homes in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, they are shepherded off into a separate arrivals room and dealt with like a separate category of being. The sound of the thump of the visa stamp hitting the passport page condemns them to a life without rights or freedoms. You see them on the buses being ferried in and out, destination unknown, as if their only ticket to the city is a ticket of servitude. For domestic women their fate is more insidious.

To an outsider, the constant presence of the migrant here feels like a kind of cultural more: that, whether conscious or not, this is how things are done here. What is insidious about the practice becomes lost in the anodyne scenes of them lounging in the park or taking routine walks to work that it becomes a commonplace acceptance. Acceptance of a form of human bondage one might think the world had long discarded by now.

The migrant issue is not being ignored. KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation, for example, is a secular Lebanese non-governmental civil society organization that seeks to abolish all forms of exploitation; Migrant Rights documents abuses; Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) is a grassroots movement in collaboration with migrant community leaders seeking to target racism against migrant workers in Lebanon. Tom Fletcher, the British Ambassador to Lebanon, highlighted migrant rights in November last year by “working as a domestic worker” for a day, swapping jobs with Kalkidan Nigusie, an Ethiopian lady working as a maid.

Despite this awareness, living everyday at close quarters to the practice numbs the reality, making one almost complicit. They are with you on nights out. At Snack Abou Tony’s, a grubby takeout with mini bottles of whiskey behind glass counters and chocolate éclairs under beers in the fridge, drunken groups watch a young migrant woman carefully lay lettuce on meat and drizzle white sauce in zigzag patterns under ultraviolet light at night. In mid-afternoon she sits outside in the shade arranging herbs on a plastic table next to the toothless owner.

They find their way to live, to be happy, to be together. Sometimes on Sundays small groups of women, still in their maid uniforms, snatch an hour off together and sit on the few scraps of grass thrown up by the city. One or two will be detached from the group, head buried in a letter from home. Perhaps the weight of intense emotion is too much, and the letters are full of banal details. The others lie on their backs, palms open to the sky, throwing heads back with laughter. One Sunday in May, on a day out of Beirut, there were crowds of Sikh men and women, families and young children, waiting in line for cable cars up into the holy monument in the hills. Bright colors of turbans bobbed into the distance; beautiful women held young babies in turquoise and cerulean saris; queues of smiles and gentle chatter, ice creams in small sticky hands, wide-eyed youngsters and patient fathers. Happiness at a family outing.

There are vignettes of affection — little old ladies, occasionally little old men, the former shrunk and the latter bent double with age, holding hands with young Asian or African women as they gingerly feel their way across the street. They cast age-spotted hands over plump tomatoes in small grocery stores, feeling the ripeness. It is not easy to give one’s life over to another to execute; both individuals have lost themselves, in a manner of speaking. One in movement, the other in choice. Both are powerless, and yet the migrant is more powerless than the other.

I befriended one migrant lady en route to work every morning, picking up plums and oranges outside the grocer at which she worked in the morning sun. The fruit wasn’t very good there, but I liked to stop to have an excuse to chat. She was from Kenya and had only arrived a month previously. We talked about her home in Kisii, West Kenya; I pictured her smiling face amid the green backdrop of sugar cane and banana plantations before refocusing onto the dim corner shop and the hawkish eyes of her employer. She wasn’t allowed out, not even for half an hour to stop for some tea. She had signed a two-year contract, she said matter-of-factly, and had already resigned those two years away to nothingness. The money was going to help her education back home in Kenya and support a better quality of life there.

Flower boys are silhouetted against the sun crossing the road, too small to be seen by schizophrenic traffic. Construction workers cover faces with keffiyehs, hands and hair white with dust, crouching by holes in the ground. They sit motionless in cold buses, steely off-white, in the gray light of dawn, rows of heads facing forward, noiselessly passing the other way. They trail the street in single file at the end of the day, walking fast into the sun, bright-eyed from the front and shadow-bodied from behind. One Iraqi flower boy has been in Beirut for seven years. He’s 17 and grimy. He swims in the Mediterranean on Sundays with the other flower boys, perhaps testing the bounds of his prison. White flowers around his neck frame his impish smile; his pimp pushes him on to the next sell, but he sneaks in gentle kisses on the cheeks of drinking foreign girls as he passes and poses in leathers and aviator sunglasses for the bright snaps of strangers.

Anti-Racism Movement has collected words of advice from current migrant workers, which read like entries from a nightmare. “To all my dear friends, the situation is extremely bad”; “It is crystal clear. All those who would like to come to Lebanon, just don’t”; and “This is not paradise.” A newspaper article, five lines long, from April 7, 2014, reads:

SIDON, Lebanon: An Ethiopian domestic worker died over the weekend in an apparent suicide in the southern city of Tyre. The woman allegedly threw herself off a balcony of the apartment building where she worked; Media reports said the woman had fled last week from her employer’s home. Security forces later detained the Ethiopian and returned her to her employer.

And the world carries on.


Helen Mackreath is a writer and researcher based in Beirut, currently working on Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

LARB Contributor

Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and the West Bank. She is currently researching issues relating to Syrian refugee governance in Turkey.


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