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The Other Side of International Migrations: Bound Labor and Institutionalized Discrimination

March 19, 2012

By Fiorenzo Conte

International migrations are rightly seen as one of the most powerful forces to alleviate poverty. Although the benefits are clear, there are concerns that migrant workers (often illegal) are susceptible to harsh working conditions in recipient countries. Michael Clemens at Center for Global Development warns against any generalizations about the inhumane working conditions of immigrants. He makes a very basic point: to say whether or not the working conditions are really inhumane and unbearable one should first look at the working conditions which the migrant workers had before choosing to migrate. The case of seasonal Mexican workers employed in the agricultural sector in the US proves that what constitutes unbearable working conditions for US citizens represents a significant improvement for Mexican workers. More importantly the workers have the freedom to chose with whom they want to work for: the claim that migrants workers are bound to return to the same employer because they have no other options has in fact little underpinning. According to the US law which regulates this market seasonal migrants workers can chose to work for another employer in the same sector yet the overwhelming majority chose to go back to the same employer: and this is hardly an evidence of slavery.

Working conditions who are comparatively better that to those in the origin country and  a relative freedom to chose the employer can be safely set as conditions sine qua non international migration can lift people out of poverty. These pre-conditions are however not present for a variety of migrant workers. Domestic migrant workers in Lebanon fall within this category. Unbearable working conditions are regularly denounced by domestic workers and are widely documented by activists’ communities.  Caught in a cycle of violence and abuse domestic workers sometimes decide to run away from their employers only to engage in prostitution to earn a living in Beirut.

These perceptions of abusive relationships between employer and employee are corroborated by a survey amongst Lebanese employers. Even when Lebanese employers reportedly reject any blatantly abusive practices such as hitting the domestic workers they perceive some other practices which violate the dignity of the domestic workers as acceptable and even necessary. Some of the findings are staggering:

Over 88% of employers withhold the passport of the domestic worker to prevent her from escaping and 80% do not allow her to leave the employer’s house on her day off. 

The social acceptability of such exploitative social norms finds ground in the current legislation. The violence is in fact institutionalized and normalized because of a legislation which predominantly protects the employer. This unchecked power of the employer derives from a contract of bound labor: under this arrangement migrants workers are allowed to enter Lebanon only under a system of employer sponsorship whereby the migrant can legally reside in the country as long as she or he works for the assigned employer. If the employer does not want the worker anymore he or she is forced to leave the country: this system in other words binds the workers to the employer. As a result there is no freedom to chose the employer one prefers to work for. Furthermore the legislation is very opaque and vague about the duties and rights of employers and employees: the relationship remains defined according to the “values and principles of the Lebanese families” which is tantamount to give free rein to the employer given the existing balance of force.

This system of institutionalized violence is multifaceted and involves a variety of actors. Employment agencies systematically resort to harsh intimidation against the workers to discourage them to denounce any abuses or to prevent them from leaving their employers. Worryingly the Ethiopian embassy does not make any effort to fight against or to advocate against cases of abuses. The official position seems to be dictated by the necessity to keep a low publicity about cases of abuse so to not discourage the inflow of migrant workers and to keep the remittances flow versus Ethiopia going[1].

In sum international migrations have an enormous potential to improve the lives of millions. However, some migrants are not allowed to reap these benefits as a system of institutionalized system of violence and discrimination is in place in the host country. This system denies both acceptable working conditions and the freedom to chose the employer: arguably two prerequisites for international migrations to be beneficial. This system justifies and legitimizes social norms which see the abuse of basic human rights as both acceptable and necessary.  If the institutional system persists as it is, the social norms are likely to not change. Similarly, if the latter norms persist the institutions are likely to stick in a self-reinforcing cycle which is extremely difficult to break also because of the connivance of the government of the country of origin which have a vested interest in keeping cases of abuse out of the media’s radar. To denounce and make public the presence of such institutionalized and deep rooted discrimination thus becomes imperative to ensure that migrant workers can reap the benefits of working in foreign countries.

HT to Migrant Workers Task Force for the information provided

[1]Last week an Ethiopian girl was publicly abused in front of the Ethiopian embassy without that the Ethiopian functionaries intervened to defend her.

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