1 Beirut, a thriving liberal economic hub and “refuge” metropolis (Mouzoune, 1999), became the nation’s capital in the late 1940s, welcoming many thousands of Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi and Egyptian Arabs, as well as many Armenians and Kurds, fleeing the socio-political turmoil in the Middle East. Yet, behind this image of an affluent and welcoming city where anyone can feel at home lies another reality linked to the presence of foreigners in Beirut: that of workers restricted to the most unskilled sectors, socially stigmatised and territorially segregated. Ever since Lebanon’s independence in 1943, the labour market has been closely linked to both the regional context and the structural and political differences between Middle Eastern countries. The status of Palestinians is symptomatic in this respect: having been in exile for more than seventy years, these many thousands of stateless people see their prospects for employment and social mobility severely curtailed. Since the 1950s, Beirut has also been a popular destination for a large number of Syrian workers who play a vital role in the most unskilled segments of the Lebanese economy.
2 In this regard, the influx of African and Asian workers in the 1970s did not structurally upset the Lebanese labour market, which was already built on the exploitation of a vulnerable labour force. Under the Kafala system, in which foreign workers are hired and monitored under the supervision of a Lebanese sponsor, the practice of providing employers with workers without rights goes on. Since the 1990s, the growing influx of non-Arab workers into Lebanon has inevitably disrupted this market’s ethnic makeup, which until then was primarily based on regional mobility, be it economic or political. Yet this internationalisation phenomenon is tantamount to a process of “ethnicisation”, i.e. the reinforcement of divisions, insecurity and subjection that already define the Lebanese system.
3 In this respect, the neo-Marxist approach to ethnicity shows how “Ethnic and racial divisions must be understood in terms of the functions they perform in the capitalist system, in particular that of enabling the creation of cheap labour” (Poutignat and Streiff-Fenart, 2008: 117). The influx of workers as part of the globalisation process is by no means a paradigm shift. Indeed, as mentioned above, the place and status of Palestinians and Syrians suggest that a widespread system of discrimination is already in place in Lebanon, with specific employment terms based on the nationality of the workforce. However, a twofold process initiated in the 1970s must be noted: a gradual “de-Arabization” phenomenon (Kapiszewski, 2007) concurrent with a trend towards the feminisation of work-related immigration in the least qualified sectors, particularly domestic work. While this “de-Arabization” process is specific to Middle Eastern countries, the accompanying trend towards feminisation is commonplace in migratory globalisation and the modern international division of labour. It is more broadly part of the “global care chain” (Ehrenreich and Hochschild, 2003), whereby millions of women are employed in home-based activities (personal care, childcare or even “house servant”), making up what Abdelnour (2012) describes as the “service proletariat”. Those women now make up a significant proportion of the cohorts of foreign workers who are denied mobility, an essential “servile class” (Sassen, 2010) for northern and southern cities alike.
4 Furthermore, the proliferation of administrative regimes for foreign workers is not specific to Lebanon either. Similar issues can be found in Europe, as evidenced for example by the “fragmentation of employment status” in Belgium (Rea, 2013). Nevertheless, whilst the Lebanese labour market was already marked prior to 2011 by a total lack of equality between workers (between nationals, between nationals and foreigners, and between foreigners themselves), the influx of Syrian exiles after that date did exacerbate such inequalities by creating stiffer competition for the least desirable jobs. As a result, the ethnic — and thus political — dimension is compounded by employers’ practices, for whom new opportunities for dividing up the labour market offer fresh prospects of profiting from the exploitation of refugees, migrant workers, and displaced workers. Indeed, despite a steady turnover of labour with the regular arrival of newcomers, Palestinians, Syrians, as well as African and Asian women remain in the same class structure, with little opportunity for upward professional and social mobility or status stability other than on the margins and the urban fringes, namely through commercial activities and the informal rental housing market.
5 Consequently, through the analysis of the Lebanese labour market, this paper argues for a rethinking of the so-called “game of ethnic musical chairs” principle theorised by Waldinger (1994) in a US context. According to this theory, as they experience upward occupational and social mobility, long-established individuals and communities in a given territory are replaced by newcomers who fill in the gaps they leave. Yet, in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees, African and Asian migrants as well as displaced Syrians remain legally and widely confined to the most unskilled segments of the labour market, where they compete with each other depending on the national and regional economic climate, regardless of how long they have been living in the country. In other words, the system remains underscored by the familiar tune of the exploitation of foreign nationals, whose prospects of gaining a more comfortable status are slim; the only exception being those territories where informality is clearly the norm, but where inequalities are more or less replicated through the hierarchy of legitimacies in the shape of exacerbated power relationships, as we shall see later through the example of a Beirut marketplace. The least qualified segments of the Lebanese labour market thus form a vast ethnic niche controlled by both employers and the State who prevent vulnerable foreign nationals from breaking out. The Lebanese example highlights one of the shortcomings of the game of musical chairs theory, i.e. a failure to account for the political and institutional environment and its impact on the integration and mobility of migrants within a given labour market.
6 This paper stems from ethnographic fieldwork carried out between 2011 and 2014 as part of a doctoral thesis,  combining observations and interviews with around one hundred people — male and female migrants, shopkeepers, landlords, public officials, recruitment agents — in the eastern districts (Karm el Zeitoun, Bourj Hammoud), a refugee camp (Mar Elias) and Palestinian settlements (Sabra) within the Beirut conurbation (see Map 1). It is also based on a survey conducted between 2016 and 2018 as part of the ANR Lajeh programme  during which I carried out several rounds of interviews with Syrian displaced individuals and Lebanese landlords in the Zgharta area (North Lebanon). The paper seeks to shed light on the migration of foreign workers to Lebanon, their settlement conditions and their integration into the labour market which generates widespread social and status insecurity as well as competition for the most undesirable jobs. To this end, we will first outline the issues related to the position of Palestinians and Syrians in a historically regionalised Lebanese labour market, where inequalities between nationals and foreign citizens are established. We will then look back at the internationalisation of labour migration in Lebanon due to a shift in the local socio-political context, the economic environment in the sending countries, and the development of migratory channels linked to a globalised domestic service industry. Lastly, based on a case study of Sabra’s informal marketplace (Beirut), we will take a sidestep and look at the migration-labour nexus from a local perspective in order to get a better grasp of the existing power relationships and forms of competition and collaboration between the various national groups that make up this vulnerable foreign labour force.
Map 1: Location map of Beirut and the survey areas
Map 1: Location map of Beirut and the survey areas
Political Issues and Inequalities between Arab “Brothers”
7 The Lebanese labour market has long been reliant on foreign labour. Unskilled or low-skilled work (construction work, seasonal farm work and a wide variety of casual jobs) usually revolves around a large and undeclared Syrian workforce, which is vital to the Lebanese economy. Although this reliance on Syrian labour is specific to Lebanon and is a recurring theme in Lebanese nationalist rhetoric (Chalcraft, 2009), as was the case before with the settlement of Palestinians, this situation is in no way specific from a structural standpoint. In the Middle East, as in other parts of the world, economic differentials and territorial discontinuities have helped and continue to help drive mobilities in a globalised environment (Simon, 2008), as well as labour market operations and hierarchies.
8 However, as a result of the political tensions and military conflicts that continually shake the Middle East, “migratory upheavals” (Cortes and Faret, 2009) are recurrent, relentlessly disrupting the place and status of foreigners, workers and/or refugees in the destination societies. In this respect, the case of Palestinians and Syrians in Lebanon is indicative of a situation of exploitation of these socially and statutorily discriminated communities, which is both legitimised and concealed by regional political issues. While Lebanese politicians sometimes depict Palestinians and Syrians as ‘Arab brothers’ and sometimes as political enemies depending on circumstances, rivalries and local or regional alliances, in practice, these communities’ living and working conditions in Lebanon are by and large defined by disenfranchisement, stigmatisation and a precarious existence that the economic crisis currently affecting the country only serves to exacerbate. 
Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. No Way back, Political Deadlock and Declining Social Status
9 Palestinian presence in Lebanon reflects the interweaving of spatial and temporal scales, as well as the political issues involved in integrating a population in exile awaiting some hypothetical return. Officially, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near-East, approximately 475,000 Palestinian refugees were living in Lebanon in 2020, about 50% of them in the twelve refugee camps acknowledged by the Lebanese authorities and placed under their jurisdiction. In reality, less than 200,000 refugees are estimated to have actually settled in the country.  The politically, spatially, and socially alienated Palestinian population effectively suffers the resentment and mistrust of the Lebanese as a result of the Lebanese wars (1975-1990). Admittedly, such discrimination occurs in all Middle Eastern countries, albeit to varying degrees (Dorai and Al Husseini, 2013), but that which targets Palestinians in Lebanon remains by far the most violent. It has developed and established itself in a context of political, military and religious tensions at national and regional levels, with concerns that refugees will become permanent residents in a country of just over four million inhabitants; this issue of settlement, translated into Arabic by the word tawtin, regularly comes up in political and activist debates as well as in respondents’ comments when they argue against this idea of giving up on the dream of going back to Palestine (see Photography 1).
Photography 1: “Yes to going back, no to settling” graffiti on the walls of the Mar Elias refugee camp
Photography 1: “Yes to going back, no to settling” graffiti on the walls of the Mar Elias refugee camp
10 Palestinians have been living in Lebanon under an emergency regime since their eviction from Palestine between 1948 and 1967, following the Nakba (also known as the Palestinian Catastrophe) and the Israeli-Arab conflicts. Officially in support of their right of return and unofficially to prevent their integration, the Lebanese state did not ratify the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and only marginally grants this status to Palestinians who are stateless and subject to multiple discrimination (Clochard and Doraï, 2005). Refugees are denied, among other things, the right to own property and to practice almost any trade outside the camps. According to Hala Abou Zaki:
“The Lebanese decree that prevents Palestinians from working in many industries is undoubtedly the one that affects refugees the most. [...] As early as 1951, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs established the notion of national preference which gave priority to Lebanese workers for any job. [...] In 1982, after the withdrawal of the Palestine Liberation Organisation from Lebanon, a ministerial decree (289/1) restricted foreigners’ access to various lines of business, and the list of prohibited trades was updated in 1993 (decree 3/1).” (Abou Zaki, 2008 : 90-91)
12 Incidentally, due to legal obstacles to their inclusion in the labour market and long before the collapse of the Lebanese economy in 2020, more than half of the Palestinians were unemployed, working illegally or doing concealed work (Chaaban et al., 2010 : vii). Despite their high level of qualifications, Palestinian graduates from Lebanese universities — 6% of the Palestinian labour force  — have always been subject to multiple forms of hiring discrimination. According to data from the Lebanese Ministry of Labour, less than three hundred work permits were issued to Palestinians in 2010, out of a total of 159,764 issued to all foreigners;  this reality was confirmed by the census carried out in 2017 in Palestinian camps and settlements, where more than 93% of respondents stated that they worked without permits (Kumar et al., 2019). Such forced inactivity, if not illegality, and assignment to the lowest status occupations with no prospect of upward mobility, inevitably drive younger generations to leave Lebanon, primarily for Europe and America (Puig, 2012).
13 Following conflicts, Israeli invasion and ousting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1982 and the occupation of Lebanon by the Syrian army and intelligence service (1976-2005), Palestinians’ position and status have continued to deteriorate. The hypothetical return to Palestine, as well as the mutual fear of tawtin and of religious imbalance, have so far prevented any attempt to grant the most basic rights to refugees. Given the long period of exile, this situation is all the more absurd and ambiguous since several generations of Palestinians were born in Lebanon  but remain stateless and devoid of any rights other than those granted by the Lebanese state by virtue of their refugee status.
14 In effect, on the sole basis of arbitrary and discriminatory criteria, only wealthy and/or Christian Palestinians have been granted citizenship (Sayigh, 1994; Sfeir, 2008). Just like Armenian refugees who had come in the wake of the 1915 genocide, the naturalisation of around 30,000 Christian Palestinians between 1950 and 1970 sought to reinforce the Christian community’s influence in Lebanon. In addition, only Palestinian women married to Lebanese men can obtain citizenship.  These multiple political, legal and social obstacles to any form of normalisation therefore stem from conflicting messages combining, on the one hand, steadfast support for the right of return to Palestine and, on the other, a belief that these refugees still pose a threat to the nation-state, thereby legitimising their denial of fundamental rights, including their right to fully access the labour market, bearing in mind that two-thirds of those refugees were living below the poverty line in 2010 (i.e. $ 6 a day per capita). 
15 The realities and landscapes of the Palestinian camps and settlements in Beirut are a constant reminder of this marginalisation and protracted ‘temporary’ situation.  Both inside and outside the city, in those impoverished parts of the metropolis operating under an extraterritorial regime, ghettoisation has become a feature of these districts which also reflect Lebanon’s migration dynamics. Today, many residents are indeed non-Arab migrants who chose to settle there in order to evade checks by the Lebanese authorities and due to the affordable level of rents compared to the rest of the city. In addition, thousands of Syrian and Palestinian families from Syria have sought refuge there, joining family members already present and benefiting from a show of solidarity that has since given way to resentment and competition for access to aid and resources provided by humanitarian organisations (Abou Zaki, 2018). The influx of African and Asian migrants, and subsequently of displaced people from Syria, thus helps redesign these overpopulated and impoverished areas, disrupting an already precarious social and political balance (Knudsen, 2013).
Indispensable and Undesirable : Syrians, a Community of Migrant and Now “Settled Displaced” Workers
16 The Syrian-Lebanese case may be specific in that it is part of a decisive historical, social and political framework in terms of migration dynamics: the colonial partition, by the French mandate authorities, of territories belonging to a common social, cultural and linguistic sphere into two distinct national and political entities (Picard, 2016); a geopolitical context that saw the gradual takeover by the Syrian Ba’athist regime of an economically liberal Lebanon that was imploding ; and the socio-economic inequalities found in both countries, the poorest of which has militarily occupied the richest (Corm, 2005). Syrian workers’ migration to Lebanon, which was already significant between the independence (1943) and the outbreak of the Lebanese wars (1975), therefore remains a structuring feature of the political and economic ties between the two countries and forms the basis of the Lebanese labour market, mainly in its least qualified segments (Longuenesse, 2015).
17 Taking advantage of this tutelage relationship and political disorder experienced after the conflict, the Syrian and Lebanese authorities signed agreements in 1993 aimed at “regulating the movement of people and the transport of goods”. They introduced “the principle of freedom of movement, residence, work and employment, in accordance with current regulations in each of the two States” (Naufal, 2010 : 7). As far as free movement of labour was concerned, these agreements merely confirmed a de facto situation for Syrians. However, provisions relating to the equal treatment of workers were never applied. The Syrian workforce in Lebanon remain expendable and at the mercy of Lebanese employers, with no social or medical protection, particularly as almost all workers are undeclared. According to studies, they accounted for 20 to 40% of a Lebanese working population estimated at around 1.5 million people in the early 2000s (Verdeil et al., 2007), and whose freedom of movement, formal and informal,  was effective until the popular uprising in Syria in 2011. Meanwhile, the Lebanese Ministry of Labour estimates that approximately 900 Syrians held a work permit in Lebanon in 2010; a statistical blur that can only increase with the influx of displaced people fleeing the war.
18 Until 2011, the Syrian workforce in Lebanon was still predominantly male, low-skilled, underpaid, working mainly in construction and farming, and holding most of the 3D jobs (Dirty, Difficult and Dull) (Ambrosetti et al., 2008); jobs that are, by and large, shunned by the Lebanese who, with an equivalent level of qualification and even if they so wished, cannot compete with a labour force devoid of rights and with much lower wage expectations. Syrian workers in Lebanon thus embody the image of the transient foreign worker (Piore, 1979), vilified and belittled, standing on the pavements of the capital, secondary cities and villages waiting for a job offer. Despite the social and economic pressure of this exploited workforce on Lebanese labour, the Syrian regime’s control of Lebanon until 2005 rendered any attempt at change pointless, contributing to a general levelling down of the Lebanese labour market and to the export of an ever-increasing Syrian workforce that the Ba’athist system was unable to employ (Winckler, 1998). However, Lebanese nationalist parties’ rhetoric about the threat posed by the huge numbers of Syrian workers and now displaced Syrians hides a system of interests that has benefited both the Syrian regime  and Lebanese employers. 
19 The former has always deliberately refrained from acting to improve its citizens’ working conditions in Lebanon, despite its domination of the country and the 1993 treaty. And since Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, workers have been the target of regular, and now increasing, violence during each political crisis that punctuates relations between the two countries. As a result, Syrian workers’ status in the labour market has been further eroded. The arrival since 2012 of exiles lacking any protection other than that provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including men, women and children seeking employment in order to survive, leaves them even more vulnerable to the torments of the Lebanese population and to national political issues this new exodus is reviving. Syrian workers in Lebanon have now become a powerless and disenfranchised workforce.
20 In January 2015, the Lebanese authorities closed borders and imposed a visa system on Syrians wishing to travel to Lebanon in order to limit the number of entries, thus ending not only the unconditional welcome that had prevailed until then, but also the principle of free movement that had historically characterised mobility between the two countries. In addition, they asked the UNHCR to stop formally registering new entrants to the territory. They would still be eligible for material and/or financial assistance but would no longer be granted any formal statutory protection by the institution.  Finally, they submitted Syrian workers to the Kafala system. In other words, barring “humanitarian” reasons, only those with a registered Lebanese employer are allowed to enter Lebanon and work there, while remaining largely confined to the least qualified sectors and positions.
21 This had the immediate effect of “stranding” displaced people even further: not only those who were still travelling back and forth to Syria, for fear of no longer being able to return to Lebanon, but also those who travelled within Lebanon, particularly between the wealthiest areas offering better working conditions (cities, Mount Lebanon regions and Beirut conurbation) and poorer areas such as Akkar or the Bekaa where they chose to live due to the low level of rents. In this sense, the Kafala system has added to the status uncertainty felt by the many thousands of workers already based in Lebanon, many of whom have not been able to find a Kafil. Subsequently, due to the lack of employers willing to act as sponsors, a Kafala market has emerged, allowing the Lebanese to request payment in exchange for access to work permits and therefore residence permits. Burdened with debt to secure such documents, pay rent, eat, and care for themselves, much of the Syrian community, whose administrative status is now complex and diverse, sometimes even within the same family, has lost its freedom of movement and fallen into a multidimensional dependency.
22 By outlining Palestinians’ and Syrians’ living conditions, I set out to describe the basic principles underlying the position of foreign workers in Lebanon. As shown, political players have never acted in support of these national groups within the Lebanese labour market, other than to keep them in a relationship of subservience to the needs of employers, without ever granting them the protection that inevitably comes with the creation of a supportive legal framework for the settlement of foreign populations. For in Lebanon, such protection is seen as a threat to the national identity and the socio-political system. This argument serves to justify holding these communities in a precarious social and status condition that inevitably prevents any kind of upward professional mobility, a prerequisite for the game of musical chairs to operate. This is a key point when considering, as we are about to do, the conditions for integration of non-Arab migrants in a labour market that already operates through discriminatory logics and systematic establishment of informal practices which increase such communities’ vulnerability. The influx of African and Asian migrant women contributes to this “reserve army” which is essential to the Lebanese economy.
African and Asian Women Workers. Globalised Domesticity and Increased Ethnicisation of the Lebanese Labour Market
23 Unlike Syrians and Palestinians, non-Arab migrant women do not carry this “political tag” borne of independence movements, conflicts and regional displacement. Nor do they face the same level of mistrust when they come to work in Lebanon. Transient in theory, but now settled in large numbers and clearly visible, African and Asian women workers do not suffer the same prejudices, especially as most of them are destined solely for domestic employment. This ethnic and occupational subjection which they are officially forced to endure is ensured by the stakeholder system that regulates women’s migration - namely public authorities and recruitment agencies in the sending and receiving countries -, by the Kafala system which officially sanctions social and status insecurity, and by various practices and representations of Lebanese employers empowered by the authorities to supervise their employees’ social and spatial immobility in order to ensure constant workforce turnover and discourage any attempt to settle.
Feminisation and Internationalisation
24 Statistics released by the Lebanese authorities partly underestimate the importance of foreign women workers. They are nevertheless indicative of the relative acceptance of this labour migration entering Lebanon through highly official channels, i.e. Beirut airport, under the supervision of the General Security Directorate (Sûreté Générale) - the authority in charge of border control. According to the Lebanese Ministry of Labour, approximately 137,000 work permits were issued and renewed to African and Asian female nationals in 2010, of which almost 90% were granted to women issued with a domestic worker contract,  and about 9% to men employed in the cleaning industry. When compared to the number of permits issued to non-Arab migrant workers in 1994 (the earliest available post-war statistics), this represents an increase of about 570% over a fifty-year period.
25 However, it is widely recognised that the numbers are significantly higher than the official figures when considering people living and working in Lebanon without a residence permit (ikami) or a work permit (ijazet ‘amal). Taking into account illegal residents, the number of foreign women living in Lebanon is estimated at between 200,000 and 400,000 (Cattan, 2012), i.e. around 10% to 25% of the working population. They include African and Asian women of many different nationalities, who entered Lebanon at different times according to changes in migration flows resulting from recruitment agencies’ strategies and export countries’ policies.
26 According to official figures, about 42,000 female migrants classed as “non-Arab Africans” held a work permit in 2010. Hailing from sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopian women, who arrived in the early 1990s, make up the largest group.  As with most non-Arab workers, this group’s gender ratio is very unbalanced: only about 100 Ethiopian men work in Lebanon against over 30,000 officially registered women. This situation is similar to that of women from West and Central Africa,  Kenya and Madagascar. Despite their country being part of the Arab League, the Sudanese (before the country’s partition) fall into the “non-Arab Africans” category. Most of the interviewees come from what is now South Sudan or South Kordofan (a southern state bordering North Sudan). Though they speak Arabic, their settlement conditions in Lebanon are similar to those of sub-Saharan migrants (Dahdah, 2020).
27 More than 90,000 work permits were issued in 2010 to Asian nationals from India and the Philippines, mostly to women who are also employed as domestic workers. Since the 1970s, Sri Lankan women have been the symbol and historical representation of foreign female workers in Lebanon, even though their numbers have been declining sharply since 2005 as a result of political events in Lebanon and the war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. The generic word sirlankiyeh (meaning Sri Lankan in Arabic, to which has since been added the word habachiyeh or Abyssinian to describe Ethiopian women) is commonly used to depict domestic workers,  or even, as I heard during fieldwork, all female nationals from the Indian subcontinent — whether Nepalese, Indian or Bangladeshi — who arrived later. As far as India and Bangladesh are concerned, men account for a larger share of the workforce as a result of the sending countries’ migration policies, recruitment agencies’ strategies and Lebanese employers. In order to understand such imbalances and the feminisation of non-Arab migration, it is worth remembering that migrant workers first entered the Lebanese labour market through a very specific occupational niche: domestic service.
Domesticity as the Only Way in
28 The domestic service industry, and more generally the care industry, has undergone significant changes since the 1970s, in Lebanon as in the rest of the world. Then confined to the urban elites and rural gentry, this industry used to employ Lebanese and Syrian (Arab and Kurdish) women from the countryside, followed by Palestinians from the camps (Jureidini, 2003). However, this organisation was disrupted by a number of simultaneous factors at local, regional and global levels.
29 First, Lebanese conflicts led to the country’s fragmentation and to community tensions. Travelling between hostile territories and/or working for a different faith and/or ethnic community than one’s own, in a relationship as unequal as that of domestic service, became difficult because of mutual distrust and resentment. In addition, as economic and social structures were changing in Lebanon, an increasing number of Lebanese women were educated and trained for skilled and highly skilled segments of the labour market, thereby refusing jobs seen as undesirable and now assigned to unskilled groups. Consequently, a growing demand for home help developed and was met by the concurrent arrival of non-Arab domestic workers in the Middle East. Indeed, as a result of economic upheavals and migratory globalisation, a new international division of labour was emerging, with countries specialising in the export of manpower. Thus, in Lebanon, domestic workers from the Indian subcontinent, the Philippines and sub-Saharan Africa gradually replaced Arab domestic workers from the 1990s onwards, with the expansion of the Kafala system through the development of recruitment agency networks in Lebanon and abroad (Bret, 2011). From then on, internationalised domestic service became commonplace and was extended to all Lebanese regions and social groups.
30 According to a recruitment officer interviewed in September 2011 in Beirut, a live-in maid is an integral part of the “Lebanese social model”. Up to a quarter of Lebanese households have hired the services of a foreign maid.  Such large-scale use of international domestic labour is by no means uncommon: indeed, the mobility of millions of contract women workers who have ‘chosen’ to work as domestic servants  is an essential feature and a direct consequence of neoliberal globalisation throughout the world (Salazar Parrenas, 2001). Globalisation has largely contributed to this rise in “low-cost” domestic services, with domestic work being “the sector of first employment, and for many racialised women, the only work experience available under current legislation” (Falquet and Moujoud, 2010: 181). Consequently, unlike in European countries where, as in Belgium, “the domestic service industry [...] follows a familiar pattern of ‘musical chairs’ in which long-established migrant women are replaced by newcomers” (Freitas and Godin, 2013: 41), in Lebanon, recently arrived women continue to feed a domestic service industry that long-established ones have never left.
31 Most of the women interviewed made it clear they had chosen domestic work because they wished to leave their country, describing such work as the only opportunity, albeit a risky one, to break out of the social stagnation and even poverty in which they were caught. However, many of them also highlighted the dead-end situation as well as social and economic pressure that caused them to emigrate, and for some, to experience social downgrading as a result of such migration through ethnic and occupational subjection despite their qualifications. In this very restrictive framework of “multi-situated inequalities” (Roulleau-Berger, 2010), where poverty is met with downgraded mobility, the active role played by women and men in their choice of migration, as well as microsocial (individual and collective tactics and strategies) and macrosocial conditions (structural issues) that drive it (Brulhardt and Bassand, 1983), could be questioned.
32 As regards the organisation of the labour market and employers’ practices, contractual migration to Lebanon is therefore still overwhelmingly female, mostly confined to the domestic service industry and similar professional niches, such as cleaning; these sectors are now marked by the overwhelming, if not exclusive, presence of ethnicised foreign workers. In addition, and especially in the cleaning industry, the end of the 2000s witnessed a significant influx of men, mainly from Bangladesh, who also entered an otherwise segregated labour market via the restrictive Kafala system.
Internationalisation, the Settlement of Displaced Syrians and the Collapse of the Lebanese Economy
33 As mentioned earlier, other than in the domestic service industry, unskilled foreign workers mainly come from Syria. However, the 2000s witnessed a relative internationalisation of the male workforce due to immigration from the Indian subcontinent. Consequently, unlike immigration from Ethiopia and the Philippines, which is almost exclusively female, migration from the Indian subcontinent (with the exception of Sri Lanka) is more balanced in terms of gender ratio. The initial imbalance could be attributed to the demand from Lebanese employers who drew a link between gender, social group, and geographical origin in terms of target professional sectors, but also to the policies of export countries and recruitment agencies which encouraged women to leave for Lebanon and work as domestic servants in a country where building and farming jobs were already filled by Syrian labour.
34 These policies appear to have changed and, with them, employer demand in Lebanon through recruitment agencies. This internationalisation thus amounts to an “Asianisation” (Battegay, 2005) of the male labour force. This is mainly due to the growing number of Bangladeshi nationals  who are primarily employed in the cleaning industry to which they have been assigned by the Lebanese Ministry of Labour, such as in companies like USM (Universal Services & Maintenance) or Sukleen where they have come to represent the average cleaning worker, mopping up company, hospital, ministry or embassy offices and corridors, hanging on to the back of refuse lorries or sweeping the streets of the capital, day and night. This social invisibility is coupled with an ethnic and occupational subjection which is somewhat nuanced, since some of the men interviewed stated that they worked in manufacturing, on farms in the Beirut region, as petrol pump attendants or in supermarkets. A recruitment agent from Beirut interviewed in 2012 confirmed this growing interest on the part of employers for non-Arab male labour, especially in the commercial field where there is direct contact between employees and customers. According to him, this was due to a combination of ethnic and political prejudice, as well as the perception by employers that the Kafala system made these employees more vulnerable and captive, thereby increasing the opportunity to exercise control over them.
35 However, Syrians in Lebanon are likely to become just as vulnerable and trapped as non-Arab workers, if not more so, as a result of the war in Syria and the settlement of 1.5 million exiles living under the Kafala regime since 2015. Evidence of this is the shift in the domestic service industry towards the return of Syrian women working as cleaners for individuals who do not wish to hire a live-in African or Asian maid, or who are recruited by cleaning companies, as I witnessed during fieldwork in Zgharta Caza (northern Lebanon) between 2016 and 2018.  This return of Syrian women is all the more important given that their husbands can no longer find work due to increased competition between men, particularly in the depressed construction and farming industries. And while the collapse of the Lebanese economy since 2019, exacerbated by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, affects all vulnerable foreigners, it can nevertheless be assumed that the lack of liquidity in this dollarised economy now works in favour of Syrian nationals who can be paid in local currency (the Lebanese pound) by their Lebanese employers. By contrast, African and Asian women will only accept payment in US dollars in order to save for their return home or to send money to relatives ; as a result, many of them have not been paid for months or have simply been dismissed by their employers, some of whom have held on to their documents. These often end up languishing in front of their Consulate, hoping that the Consular authorities will send them home. In just a few months, several thousand women and men have left the country to avoid the fate of all those who are now trapped in Lebanon, debt-ridden and jobless.
Job Market and Job at the Market : Reassessing the Game of Musical Chairs in Light of Trade Relations in an Informal Situation
36 Addressing labour market issues usually involves analysing legislative frameworks, power relationships and disparities on a national, regional, and even global scale. While recognition of these scales is essential to understanding flows, their driving forces, and the power relationships behind them, it is also important not to disregard local dynamics and thus the analysis of ordinary interactions between the various stakeholders. On the one hand, the local scale approach allows us to examine the effects of the legislative framework, the power relationships in action, the hierarchy of players involved and its implications for the weakest. But it also helps us analyse the reconfiguration of these power relationships in light of day-to-day interactions between different players, blurring the traditional categories of dominant and dominated, showing how the latter are able to mobilise resources, develop strategies, “deal with borders” or even redefine them (Bontemps and Puig, 2014), flying in the face of seemingly entrenched situations, thus offering a shifting, grounded perspective rather than a rigid, overhanging vision. To this end, this third section takes a sidestep in order to reflect on the position of foreign workers in Lebanon, not from the point of view of employer/employee relationships within a conventional employment framework, but on the basis of negotiations between the various players involved in the popular and informal Sabra market in Beirut.
37 This paper has so far focused on the structures that govern foreign workers’ position in the labour market, i.e. the establishment of a pervasive system of status insecurity and the development of a legal framework that prevents any kind of upward mobility. However, the situation in Sabra highlights this system’s relative flaws. As we shall see, the informality that typifies this area of Beirut allows for a degree of mobility through commercial activities. This, however, remains limited to a small number of players who are also involved in power relationships that are admittedly different in nature, but just as exacerbated. The Sabra market thus reveals the ability of refugees, migrants, and displaced workers to circumvent the immobility imposed on them by Lebanese laws, albeit thanks to the informal nature of these areas where the authorities do not set foot. Although informality provides this kind of flexibility, it also implies permanent uncertainty and instability in a competitive struggle for the same positions.
The Popular and Informal Market of Sabra
38 The district of Sabra is located on the southern edge of Beirut. Its development stems from the expansion of the Palestinian camp of Shatila starting in the 1960s, and the disappearance of farmland and wooded areas in the south due to the sprawl of the city. Sabra forms a transitional space between an informal city built by Palestinian refugees and people displaced from the outlying regions of Lebanon and Syria in search of refuge, work and accommodation in breezeblock and sheet metal shacks, in the dilapidated and sometimes squatted buildings that make up the local landscape, and a formal city with a visible police presence, where urban planning seems to be codified and where the environment is seemingly policed.
39 The Sabra market connects these two intertwined dimensions of Beirut’s urban fabric. It developed as a result of shopkeepers fleeing the destroyed city centre in the early hours of the Lebanese conflict in 1975, as well as the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organisation whose headquarters were set up in Shatila in the early 1970s and the informality that became the norm, allowing Lebanese citizens and foreigners to bypass regulatory constraints in order to work there. Lastly, it is popular with Beirut residents, Lebanese and non-Lebanese alike, who seek cheap products, whereas central and peri-urban areas are becoming increasingly exclusive in the post-war period. In Sabra, Lebanese and Palestinian shopkeepers are well established and own clothes and telephone shops, butcher’s shops, grocery stores and bakeries. Whilst sometimes sharing the same nationality, employees are mostly Syrians. Much like street vendors in Beirut, they set up shop on Sabra’s street corners, using their “arabayeh” (literally “car”) to carry and display their goods. In the 2010s, Bangladeshi trade “grafted itself” (Puig, 2016) onto this socio-spatial organisation that shapes the landscape and determines the way the market operates.
40 Although the Kafala system and the workings of the Lebanese labour market are supposed to condemn migrants, and women migrants in particular, to constant mobility with no prospect of settlement, as well as socio-professional immobility and the invisibility associated with factory jobs, building work and live-in domestic service, many studies (Bret, 2012; Deboulet and Hily, 2009) have shown the extent to which these people’s journeys have gone beyond this institutionalised framework, leading them to pursue migratory paths involving settlement and autonomy in spite of all the risks involved. As such, Bangladeshi trade in Sabra is evidence of “the acquisition of a more diversified social capital where ‘strong ties’ and ‘weak ties’ reinforce each other, [enabling] to some extent some kind of ‘marginal social mobility’ in the employment sector” (Freitas and Godin, 2013: 43) and beyond. Indeed, some Bangladeshi men and women have partially or completely broken free from their designated employers, pursuing a professional, personal, and even family strategy that" has led to higher income through ethnic entrepreneurship.
Power Relationships and Ethnoprofessional Assignment in a Market Context
41 Monitoring the development of Bangladeshi trade, i.e. the arrival of outsiders on the local scene, has shed light on the way the market operates and the underlying power relationships between those who control the area, those who try to make a place for themselves and those who hope to keep it. It also revealed the underlying relationships between stakeholders according to nationality in an environment marked by social and status insecurity, and by political tensions of varying degrees depending on the ups and downs of local and regional geopolitics.
42 In the early 2000s, two Bangladeshis working in maintenance and catering companies decided to supplement their income by starting a business in Sabra. These early pioneers were followed by several fellow countrymen in the early 2010s. Within a few months, Bangladeshi trade developed and diversified with the opening of new grocery stores, restaurants, followed by fishmonger, tailor, and barber shops. Street vendors competed by selling more or less the same vegetables, spices and CDs. The scene started to change dramatically, especially on Sundays, triggering mixed feelings amongst the locals: while long-established Lebanese and Palestinian traders argue that “this is no longer Sabra but Dhaka”, eager Bangladeshis retort that Sabra is now “their” market. In reality, such ‘ownership’ proves easier said than done since newly arrived Bangladeshis have to constantly negotiate for a spot with Palestinians and the Lebanese who are holding them.
43 Behind the cloak of informality which gives the impression that things are chaotic and that everyone can freely enjoy a stretch of road, in practice Sabra is tightly controlled by various players who fiercely protect their interests and privileges by assigning each individual to their rightful place according to a finely tuned set of rules. These stakeholders belong to local ruling factions, i.e. political parties and/or people’s committees that controlled Palestinian groups. They decide who settle where and how, who can do what and with whom, under their “protection” — a byword for racketeering. In addition, shopkeepers demand payment from Bangladeshis who set up tables, umbrellas, crates, and boxes in front of their premises. The growth of this “souk el-bangladeshiyine” (Bangladeshi market) would not have been possible had those dominant players who run the place not viewed it as financially worthwhile. But neither would they have allowed it if Bangladeshis were not seen as a harmless bunch that could easily be contained and if necessary repressed, as Issa, a Lebanese butcher interviewed in June 2013, explained:
“Bangladeshis are nice, honest people, just trying to make a success of their migration by holding down several jobs. But here people know they are weak, so they sometimes push them around, hit them when they take up too much space or stand in the middle of the road with their products. They don’t understand Arabic or badly, when you talk to them, they laugh, and when they talk to us, we laugh.”
45 This picture of powerless Bangladeshis, whose rough Arabic and strong accent can be ridiculed, who can be pushed around if necessary and who stand outside the political power relationships that shape social interactions, is in sharp contrast with that of Syrians attending the market. The Lebanese and Palestinians’ perception of the latter is indeed the result of a traumatic collective experience combined with ordinary racism towards the figure of the immigrant worker. Syrians are thus seen as solitary, boorish men, protected by the Syrian military and intelligence services which controlled Lebanon (1990-2005), laid siege to Palestinian camps (1984-1987), and violently repressed any form of opposition to their power. In a conservative and warfare environment in which everyone stays alert, Syrians are still represented as a threat to the moral and political order that needs to be guarded against. As Mohamed, another Lebanese butcher interviewed in June 2012, puts it:
“[Bangladeshis] are quiet, they don’t make any trouble. If you tell them something, they listen […], no need to negotiate. I’m talking mostly about Syrians. They have a screw loose! As soon as they see a woman, […] when there are a lot of people around, they try to touch her, […] so we hit them. Before, when Syrians controlled the country, we couldn’t do that, but now we do what we want here.”
47 In summary, the Sabra market is structured around the following hierarchy: the Lebanese and Palestinians acting as “ushers” and traders, Syrians employed by the latter or who pay for the right to set up their arabayeh, and Bangladeshis who developed their trading activities for their fellow countrymen under the protection of the former. This allocation of roles and places is being disrupted on the one hand by the development of Bangladeshi trade, and on the other by the economic crisis affecting Lebanon and prompting many shopkeepers to cease trading.
A Game of Musical Chairs that Equates to a Struggle for the Same Slots
48 The development of Bangladeshi trade in Sabra has led to a reshuffling of power relationships: first, within the Bangladeshi trading system, women have gradually become employees and then traders; then, the butchery business — supposedly the preserve of Palestinians and the Lebanese — has gradually opened up to Bangladeshis; and finally, Lebanese and Palestinian traders have started letting out their premises to Bangladeshis.
49 Whilst being numerically predominant in Lebanon, Bangladeshi women’s increasing visibility in the market, other than as consumers, reflects the power relationships within the group. This of course can be attributed to the restrictions placed on women domestic workers, particularly the live-in nature of their work which prevents them from breaking free from their Kafil as easily as men, other than by going underground. But the unequal gender relationships that prevail in conservative Bangladeshi society and are perpetuated in the context of migration should also be considered. Consequently, only two women own a business in Sabra, one with her husband and son, while the others are usually employed in grocery shops, restaurants, or run stalls in the street. However, in this highly male-dominated market environment, where some “ushers” are quick to flex their muscles and humiliate Bangladeshis in a bid to extract more money from them, some women stand up to these overzealous ushers who dare not touch or bully them in public, “[turning] the asymmetry of gender relationships to their advantage” (Catarino and Morokvasic, 2005 : 6).
50 As for Syrians who do not own a business, they already have to negotiate their spot on the pavement with Palestinians and the Lebanese, only to see, after 2011, their fellow countrymen displaced by war also looking for work on the market. Added to this is competition from Bangladeshis who are quick to grab the best locations, displaying their goods in front of those of Syrians who may already be historical figures in the market. For Bangladeshis, this upward mobility on the legitimacy ladder is evidenced by their entry into the butchery trade. Indeed, Mohamed, the butcher interviewed earlier, pointed out the extent to which the meat trade represented a symbolic area in power relationships, and that as such it was the preserve of Palestinians and the Lebanese. Yet, in the mid-2010s, not only were Bangladeshis employed by butchers to attract their fellow countrymen, but their employers started to openly pursue a “Bangladeshi strategy”, for example by displaying signs written in Bengali. Finally, as a culmination of this power relationships’ reshuffling process, several Lebanese and Palestinian traders have in recent years ceased trading and rented out their premises to Bangladeshis who are now sporting the confidence of established traders (see Photography 2).
Photography 2: Bangladeshi trader in Sabra, 2019
Photography 2: Bangladeshi trader in Sabra, 2019
51 However, we speculate that the development of this “struggle for position” process (Lussault, 2009) in the marketplace to the benefit of Bangladeshis reveals the decline that was beginning to affect the Lebanese economy as a whole, and that the slowdown in informal activities witnessed in 2015 in Sabra could have been a harbinger of this. For if Lebanese and Palestinian traders were initially looking to expand their customer base — in this case towards Bangladeshis — in order to increase profits, it was also due to the impoverishment of their regular customers. Traders interviewed in 2018 argued that those who had chosen to pull out and rent their premises to Bangladeshis were primarily pursuing a strategy aimed at securing rental income given the uncertainty of the market, before adding that they themselves were now considering pulling out, leaving Sabra and if possible, Lebanon.
52 From a certain point of view, the dynamics of integration into the Sabra market are consistent with Waldinger’s theory according to which the structuring process of a newly arrived national group’s networks allows it to supersede, within a niche, another national group experiencing upward mobility on the strength of its now established networks. However, from our point of view, Sabra shows most of all that what allowed the dominated to take over was the ruling categories’ forced departure in a context of crisis. In other words, in a country that suffers from repeated economic and political crises and where foreigners are held in a state of permanent insecurity, the game of musical chairs amounts mostly to a struggle for the same slots at the bottom of the socio-professional ladder.
53 This article revisits Waldinger’s theory, not from the perspective of a rich economy governed by a political and social system upholding the rule of law, but from that of an economic and political system based on the exploitation and alienation of foreign labour, where tensions and nationalist tendencies prevent any form of upward social mobility other than on the margins and the urban fringes. Along the same lines as Rath’s (2001) criticisms, it suggests that Waldinger’s theory ought to be supplemented by a political and institutional assessment, in other words, in the Lebanese case, by a broader examination of the methods of integration and mobility of foreign populations in the labour market as a revealing factor of economic and political inequalities. In this instance, the extent to which the political system prevents any kind of job — and therefore social — mobility for foreign nationals is clear, thus invalidating the theory of groups succeeding one another since they are ultimately confined to a struggle for the same slots at the bottom of the socio-professional ladder.
54 And so, contrary to the denominational approach that tends to attribute all of Lebanon’s ills to religious differences, the exploitation, alienation, and subjection of foreigners remind us that the country’s social, economic, and political fabric is primarily structured by inequalities. This system is now crumbling, plagued with mismanagement, abuse, corruption, and cronyism, in the interests of a ruling class that hides behind community tensions it never stopped fuelling, and in particular behind the hatred and stigmatisation of foreign workers who are considered a threat and, as such, have been held in a state of insecurity and exploited without remorse for decades.
55 In this respect, the place of refugees, migrants and displaced people on the Lebanese labour market represents, in the words of Poiret (2005), “the absolute zero of domination” and provides us with an ideal perspective from which to “assess social and political inequalities” and their consequences. Just as the Lebanese have been badly hit by the economic crisis, with more than 75% of the population living below the poverty line in 2021, Palestinian refugees, displaced Syrians, and African and Asian migrants, who were already extremely vulnerable, see their living conditions worsen every day due to their lack of any community or cronyist protection, those being the only tolerated counterweights to Lebanese free-market policies.
Geography thesis presented in December 2015 at the University of Aix-Marseille, France.
Research programme coordinated by Kamel Doraï.
Since 2019, Lebanon has been faced with an unprecedented economic and financial crisis: the local currency, pegged to the US dollar used for daily transactions, has been heavily devalued (from 1,500 pounds to the dollar to nearly 15,000 pounds in April 2021); banks are running out of dollar liquidity while many Lebanese are indebted in dollars, paying their rent in dollars, and importing goods in dollars. As a result, according to the February 2021 issue of Le Commerce du Levant business magazine, while the population’s income has been shrinking, inflation has risen by an average of 85% in 2020, and more than 250% for food products.
The Population and housing census in Palestinian camps and gatherings in Lebanon 2017 report lists approximately 165,000 Palestinian refugees from Lebanon and around 17,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria displaced to Lebanon.
This figure is nonetheless very low compared to the Lebanese working population, of which nearly 20% have pursued higher education (Ibid.)
Getting official, complete, and reliable quantitative data in Lebanon is a challenge. This data was obtained in 2012 during our thesis fieldwork. It should be pointed out that no population census has been carried out in this country since 1932 and that information available from the authorities is often patchy and unreliable.
According to the Population and housing census in Palestinian camps and gatherings in Lebanon 2017 report, more than 85% of Palestinian refugees living in the territory were born in Lebanon.
According to the Lebanese Nationality Code, only men are legally allowed to pass on their nationality to their foreign wife and children, thus limiting the possibility for Palestinians to acquire citizenship through marriage.
See the UNRWA report entitled “Socio-Economic Survey of Palestine Refugees in Lebanon” (Chaaban et al., 2010).
This is even more so in the Tyre, Saïda and Tripoli regions where access to camps is controlled by the Lebanese army.
Until 2015, Syrians wishing to work in Lebanon only had to pay a fee of approximately 500 LS (about 8 euros before 2011) to the border authorities to get a three-month visa, which could only be extended by leaving the country occasionally. Nevertheless, given the porous nature of land borders and the variety of smuggling routes, many Syrian nationals preferred to enter and work in Lebanon illegally.
On this subject, see Fabrice Balanche’s press article entitled: Syrian workers in Lebanon or the complementarity of two systems of oppression, Le Monde diplomatique.
The Ministry of Labour tried at the time to introduce a work permit for Syrian nationals but met with opposition from Lebanese employers’ organisations which forced it to temporarily shelve the project.
According to Human Rights Watch, about 78% of Syrians in Lebanon had no legal status in 2020. URL: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/lebanon
Many employers register their employees under a domestic worker contract whilst giving them other duties in order to avoid paying the additional taxes related to work permits for more qualified positions. This is common in the commercial sector for example.
In the wake of the economic and monetary crisis that has affected Lebanon since 2019 and shed light on the plight of foreign domestic workers, the Lebanese press has reported a figure of 175,000 Ethiopian women living in the country.
Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon.
On this subject, please note the video made in November 2010 by Wissam el-Saliby entitled Sir Lankiete Libnanieh (My Sri Lankan is Lebanese), in which the director plays on ethnic and professional classifications by reversing the roles of the foreign maid and the native “madame”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-dtxEO3GjA
See Ray Jureidini’s news article entitled: Lebanon’s ways are sponsoring suicide, Daily Star Newspaper Lebanon, 10 April 2012.
According to a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) entitled Domestic workers across the world: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection (2013), at least 60 million people were employed as domestic workers worldwide in 2010. Abstract available online: http://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/WCMS_200964/lang--fr/index.htm.
A fast increase in permits issued to “non-Arab Asian” nationals is noticeable from 2007 onwards. The sudden influx of Bangladeshis may account for such a rise. Indeed, according to the Bangladeshi Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment, their numbers more than doubled between 2006 and 2009, rising from around 375,000 to around 900,000, with the majority going to the Middle East.
As part of the ANR Lajeh research programme coordinated by Kamel Doraï.