“Lebanon was built with Syrian muscles,” declared an elderly Lebanese in the early 1990s. He was referring to the hundreds of thousands of semi- and unskilled Syrians who have worked in Lebanon on a temporary basis in construction, agriculture, manufacturing and services since the mid-twentieth century.

The old man was also expressing mild surprise at how the presence of Syrian workers in Lebanon had become the subject of great controversy, even as a new generation of Syrian muscles stretched and strained in aid of the tremendous boom of construction in post-war Beirut. After the war, Syrian workers stood accused of everything from taking Lebanese jobs to informing on opponents of Syrian political and military control of Lebanon. By the time of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, the presence of Syrian workers was a major grievance fueling the “Syria Out!” demand of the Lebanese opposition. There were even a number of attacks on these workers during the “Independence Uprising” and the rapid Syrian troop withdrawal in April. By May, it was reported that Suq al-Sabra in south Beirut — also known as Suq al-Hamidiyya (one of the main Damascene markets) because of the numerous Syrians there — was virtually deserted.

No one knows for sure how many Syrians were working in Lebanon before the momentous events of the spring. The dearth of solid numbers was one factor stirring up controversy over the presence of workers — mostly rural in origin — whose purposes in Lebanon were far more mundane than those attributed to them by their antagonists. The Syrian laborers now heading back to the country are  testament to enduring attraction of higher wages, even with the soldiers gone and the grip of Damascus on its western neighbor greatly weakened.

Like Sugar in Tea

Before the 1975–1990 civil war, Syrian labor was hardly a controversial topic in Lebanon, mobilization by the Lebanese labor movement against cheap competition notwithstanding. It was thought natural that the “Switzerland of the East” should attract manual workers from less well-off neighbors, and the Lebanese economic miracle in fact required inexpensive, unskilled labor, which, for various reasons, could not be supplied from within Lebanon. General Security figures from 1970 recording 279,541 Syrian workers in Lebanon barely interested the press. [1] These workers were temporary migrants who worked hard for low wages and did not press collective demands or seek to make a visible home in Lebanon. In the words of a 1972 newspaper headline, this was a labor force that, at the end of the day, “melts away like sugar in tea.”

This apparently expansive outlook darkened with the economic crises of the mid-1980s and as the civil war raged. The slide in the value of the Lebanese currency, budget deficits, increasing debt, a negative trade balance, runaway inflation, falling real wages, massive emigration and growing unemployment shook the once proud Lebanese economy. Foreign labor — including Syrians — quickly emerged as a scapegoat. The issue took on bold political colors following Syria’s defeat of Gen. Michel Aoun during 1990–1991. Syria now presided over the political settlement encapsulated in the 1989 Ta’if Accords. The Syrian army and security services hunkered down for a long stay and Syrian regime figures began to muscle in on Lebanese commerce. As the Syrian political and military “presence” felt to more and more Lebanese like an “occupation,” Syrian workers came to be seen as an extension of Damascus’ policies and a source of numerous problems in a country struggling to rebuild. They were, in the words of columnist ‘Ali Safa’, a “frightening specter.”

“One Syrian for Every Two Lebanese”

In July 1995, economist Michel Murqus published an article in the daily newspaper al-Nahar that sparked years of heated debate in the Lebanese press about the numbers and social impact of Syrian workers in Lebanon. [2]  Murqus’ headline stated that “1,435,991 Syrians have stayed in Lebanon since 1993.” The headline was a bombshell: only in June 1994 the official figure had been 50,000. Murqus derived the new statistic by subtracting the number of border exits by Syrians from the number of their entries recorded by Lebanese General Security. This method gave the balance of Syrian migrants who stayed in Lebanon. If the Lebanese population was about 3 million, wrote Murqus, then “one Syrian lives in Lebanon for every two Lebanese.” Murqus’ numbers were developed and greatly extended in press organs opposed to the Syrian presence over the ensuing decade. Some headlines claimed that Syrians made up about half the population of Lebanon. [3] The authority of this oppositional discourse was given a boost in August 1997 when the patriarch of the Maronite Church, Nasrallah Sfeir, endorsed a figure of 1.2 million Syrian workers, citing their competition with Lebanese workers as one of five “basic problems” facing the country. [4] Numbers like this were later backed in certain academic quarters. [5]

Such a flood of foreign workers — one newspaper headline said Lebanon was “nearly drowning” — had dire repercussions for Lebanese sovereignty and politics, claimed a succession of press articles. The hands of the state were tied by corrupt Syrian control, which removed decision-making from the Lebanese authorities and public. Syrian military roads meant the borders were impossible to police. Smugglers and associated Mafiosi were flourishing. Overly numerous workers burdened security services, police and prisons, threatening the rule of law. [6] Syrian workers were impossible to tax, meaning hundreds of millions were lost to the treasury. [7] Worse, could not many workers have links to the Syrian security services that are responsible for extensive human rights abuses in Lebanon (as well as in Syria)? It is frightening, said one Lebanese, when your concierge, who knows everything about you and your family, is Syrian and a potential informant. Syrian workers were also seen as a threat to the political position of an embattled Christian minority in a country where power depended on sectarian numbers, especially if Syrians were to be naturalized. [8]

Just as insistently, Murqus and other critics charged that Syrians were a drain on the Lebanese economy. They sent practically all their earnings home, to the tune of billions of dollars a year, putting a huge strain on the currency and balance of payments, and on Lebanese business, which failed to benefit from their feeble consumer spending. As one refrain went, the Syrians “even bring their bread.”

The critics went on to blame Syrian workers for the plight of unprotected “armies of unemployed” Lebanese. [9] That employers were forced to employ Syrians for fear of security services was a common claim. So was the idea that Syrian squatters in abandoned, war-damaged houses caused numerous problems, and the argument that Syrian workers proliferated in city slums, straining municipal resources. Syrians appeared regularly in the crimes and misdemeanors sections of the daily papers, accused of rape, murder and theft — hardly surprising, said some, given that they are uneducated single men, a long way from home. Some said an influx of migrants taking local jobs was causing Lebanese to leave the country, a particular bugbear of Christians worried over the sectarian balance. [10] For some, finally, Syrian workers were seen as a threat to the civilized culture and identity of Lebanon itself. [11]

In Defense of Syrian Labor

The first major attempt to rebut Michel Murqus’ figures was a 1998 study for the Syrian-Lebanese Supreme Council by demographer Roger Sawaya, who claimed that Lebanon hosted no more than 253,000 Syrian workers. [12]  He argued that Murqus’ numbers related to entries and exits, but not individuals. The same person could enter and exit 12 times a year, however, greatly inflating the gross figures. Further, exits were undercounted as many did not hand in their entry cards on departure in order to escape the exit fee from Syria on return. Moreover, Murqus’ calculations ignored the fact that many exits and entries registered not workers, but tourists, residents, visitors and students. Others picked up the baton, arguing that al-Nahar was biased, that Murqus’ figures were against all logic and science, and his estimates for workers by sector greatly exaggerated, his figures for remittances wildly inflated and his economics self-contradictory or simply wrong. [13]

As for politics, defenders of the Syrian workers continued, how could the Lebanese complain about the Syrian hand in Lebanon, when Syria ended its civil war and guaranteed Lebanese security? Had not 15,000 Syrian martyrs fallen defending the Lebanese, their sovereignty and the larger pan-Arab cause from Israel and the US? The admitted regulatory problems were being addressed by the joint committee established in the Labor Agreement of October 1994, which would result in an agreement to regulate work and workers as soon as possible. [14] Lebanese employers bore a heavy responsibility for the lack of regulation and taxation in any case, as they refused to register their work force in order to avoid labor law, taxes and red tape. As for the economy, how can the Lebanese say the Syrians are a drain, the retort has been, when Syrians built Lebanon, whether the wealthy families who arrived fleeing socialism in the 1960s or those manual laborers who have taken the low-status, lowincome jobs Lebanese refuse. The latter perspective is emphatically shared by Syrian workers and their Lebanese employers. Salim al-Dahhash, a construction worker who became a concierge, says: “Syrians are distinctive for their labor, particularly in construction. The Lebanese are simply not accustomed to this kind of heavy labor. They don’t want to do it. They want to sit in offices, in banks, to work with computers. They can’t carry heavy things on their shoulders, or work with their hands.” [15] Abu ‘Uthman, a Lebanese shopkeeper and employer in Beirut makes the same point: “All the Lebanese want to work as prime minister or president of the republic!”

The defenders of the Syrian labor force in Lebanon say that those who deny these simple facts of division of labor and supply and demand have “political goals and intentions.”[16] Or, they are hypocritical on two counts. First, it is the Lebanese who seek to employ cheap Syrians. Second, Lebanon itself lives on remittances from out-migrants working abroad. Economists note that in any case Syria pays the major social costs — such as health care and education — of the reproduction of the Syrian work force. The Lebanese capitalist pays only subsistence wages. Some estimate the profits made by Lebanese employers at $500 million per annum. Finally, it is argued, market integration between Syria and Lebanon is necessary to build up an Arab economic bloc which can face up to hegemonic economic and political projects led by the Turkish-Israeli alliance. [17]

As for social problems, these defenders contend that Lebanese unemployment is much more a result of structural problems than of Syrian competition. In many sectors, Lebanese and Syrians do not compete as the Lebanese refuse to do menial labor. Slums result not from the backwardness of the Syrians, but from the failure of the Lebanese authorities to take foreign workers into account in their urban planning. The Lebanese should point the finger, it is added, not at the supposedly backward rural migrants, but at their own failure to grant basic human rights and human dignity to Syrians. [18] The notion that Syrian migrants cause out-migration is discounted because out-migrants are usually those with professional or vocational qualifications who do not compete with Syrians. Finally, accusations of criminality and exaggerated fears about Lebanese culture are occasionally denounced as racism.

The defense of Syrian labor, however, failed to persuade the Lebanese public. The Israeli withdrawal in May 2000, which reduced the rationale for the Syrian security presence, and the death of Hafiz al-Asad in June were both grasped as political opportunities by those opposed to Syrian control. After 2000, words turned into actions. Students loyal to Aoun engaged in high-profile campaigns, including selling “Lebanese” produce on the streets. The youth of certain city quarters — especially in Sidon — barred Syrians, accusing them of crimes. Violent incidents of uncertain provenance were reported. Harsh Syrian repression of protesters further polarized the situation. With the assassination of Hariri, widely blamed on Syria, popular anger saw a legitimate target in Syrian workers. Numerous attacks were reported, some resulting in fatalities, although hard numbers are lacking. [19] Syrians departed the country in significant numbers.

The Uncounted and Unprotected

Not surprisingly perhaps, the extended controversy over the presence of Syrian workers in Lebanon sheds only limited light on the migrants themselves. For all the ink spilled, it bears repeating that no accurate statistics on these workers exist. Syrians usually do not acquire Ministry of Labor work permits, and employers do not keep records lest they attract taxes and social costs. Recorded exits and entries are seriously unreliable, a fact admitted even by their champions, and do not single out workers. Absent a survey using sampling and multipliers, the best estimates come from the educated guesses of economists such as Kamal Hamdan about labor force absorption by sector. These estimates suggest numbers peaked at around 600,000 at the height of reconstruction in the mid-1990s, but fell with the recession to around 400,000 by 2000 and fluctuated around that number thereafter. [20]

From the mid-twentieth century, most Syrians have come to Lebanon to work in agriculture or construction. Syrians take the majority of the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in agriculture, where female workers are also found in significant numbers. In construction, Syrians make up most of the unskilled and semiskilled work force, often as young male day laborers, although some of them also practice more skilled trades of tiling, plastering, décor, and even electricity and plumbing. Syrians excavate road beds and pour asphalt. They work across Lebanese manufacturing, perhaps most numerously in the garment industry. They earn wages in vegetable markets, supermarkets, groceries and butcher shops. They rent shops selling cheap electrical goods or clothes, and they work on their own account as ambulant food or lottery ticket sellers. Syrians bus tables and wash dishes in hotels, restaurants, cafés and clubs. They drive trucks, minibuses and taxis, cut hair, sweep streets, collect garbage and work as concierges in buildings. They do menial labor in hospitals and sometimes — unofficially — perform more skilled work in the health sector for a fraction of the pay given to Lebanese.

For unskilled and semi-skilled labor, pay varies from $7–12 perday. Those much less common Syrians who take skilled work in, for example, tiling, and perhaps supervise two or three laborers, can earn $25 per day.

Working in Exile

Syrians come to Lebanon, where wages are several times higher than at home, determined to improve their lot in life. As ‘Abd al-Qadir, who works in a grocery in Beirut, puts it: “We are not able to provide for our sons, our mothers and our fathers over there in Syria, so we want, by necessity, to go…wherever there is work.” A construction worker who became a concierge adds: “The one goal of work is to build a house and bring up a family and children and [give them] an education.” Migrants seek also to raise capital for land or a small business in Syria, as they are expected to do back home. As Radwan, a supermarket worker from Aleppo, relates: “When I…go to Syria, they don’t say to me, what did you eat, what did you drink. [Instead they ask] how much money did you bring?” Workers know the stigma associated with failure: only the “zeroes” or “less-than-zeroes” stay behind, said one.

In order to compete, Syrians have to be willing to be sweated in labor-intensive, low-wage, exhausting and insecure work. Employers emphasize that they take on Syrians because they are cheaper and cause fewer problems than less hard-working and more regulated Lebanese. As Abu ‘Uthman puts it, “We work Sunday, seven days a week, without stopping. Therefore, I want a worker who is willing to sacrifice himself.” Hours are long, holiday and night work is the norm, breaks are infrequent and workers can be fired at any time without compensation. Work can be dangerous and is largely unregulated. Written contracts are absent, as is social insurance. Armange, from Aleppo, who worked in both radiography and decorating, was asked if employers offered him accident insurance. He replied, “No. And we don’t even ask…. All we care about is [getting] the work…. If we asked [about insurance], the employer would say, are you here to work or to flirt?”

Whether or not the Syrian troop presence protected workers’ life and property (one might say that it caused their insecurity), and whether or not some workers were also informants for Syrian security, Syrian power in Lebanon did not lead to any progressive change in workers’ conditions. Nor did it protect them against disposability and low wages. Indeed, labor market regulation was a taboo topic for the Lebanese partly because of Syrian control, which extended to the Lebanese labor movement. The Syrian regime had no wish to rock the boat in Lebanon by encouraging its workers to “raise their heads.” Workers’ access to Lebanon greatly predated the Syrian intervention in any case. Open borders reaching back to the 1940s had much to do with the interests of Lebanese employers. If Syrian workers were hand in glove with the regime in Damascus, as per the persistent rumors, why were they so afraid of it?

Syrian migrants cut their consumption in Lebanon to the minimum. The idea is to send money to Syria, where everything can be purchased more cheaply or is provided by the state. According to one story in circulation, cost cutting applies even when Syrians die on construction sites. To avoid the exorbitant costs of transporting a corpse, the story goes, bodies are taken home wrapped in a kilim in the boot of a taxi, or even, as one version has it, as passengers in taxis or buses. Syrians are usually exhausted by a life where social goods and lives are suspended. Lebanon feels like a place of exile. As one Syrian retailer compares his home to Lebanon, “Back in Syria, life is very good. It’s very cheap — food, clothes, housing — it’s heaven.” Such conditions drive Syrians away from Lebanon, and account for the fact that there is no second generation of Syrian migrant workers there in spite of three generations of mass migration reaching back to the 1950s. Lebanon is a place for earnings, not affection. As ‘Abd al-Qadir, who has worked in Lebanon since 1989, affirms, the country could be easily exchanged for another. Armange concurs with some passion: “I like to have Lebanese friends, but the Lebanese doesn’t have a friend. His friend is his pocket.”

Exploitation or Opportunity?

Some Syrian workers clearly achieve a modicum of success in terms of the goals they set for themselves, which are already structured, of course, by what is attainable. Migrants can receive wages three or four times higher than in Syria, and income levels, within narrow limits, can be increased through acquiring new skills. Some return to establish themselves in independent business, such as a barber from Aleppo who raised enough capital to open a relatively successful shop. Others return with improved status and marriage prospects. Still others return after decades to live in semi-retirement in good-sized houses surrounded by their children and grandchildren.

On the other hand, many are less successful, even in terms of their relatively modest goals. Armange said: “I thought that Lebanon might make us realize our ambitions but I’m disappointed.” Ibrahim, a construction worker, became fed up with the grinding regime in Lebanon and returned to Syria in August 2004 but without substantial savings. Others might fall ill and have to return empty-handed. Even for those “doing well,” the labor regime in Lebanon takes its toll. Why else would ‘Abd al-Qadir remember, in the manner of a convict or a conscript, the exact length of his longest period away from home? “Eleven months and 20 days,” he recounts.

There is little evidence that migrants see their work as valued, protected and well-remunerated. Syrians are often strongly conscious of low pay, long hours, hard and unprotected work, insecurity, employer profiteering, lack of benefits and Lebanese hostility. Radwan asserts that, compared to other migrants who have work contracts, health coverage and travel arrangements on the employers’ account, “Our rights are destroyed!” Syrian workers are not oppressed by a pure form of capitalist exploitation based on the extraction of relative surplus value by capitalists revolutionizing the means of production. Capitalism is uneven and the labor regime in Lebanon reproduces its labor as disciplined commodities — sweated workers with limited access to social goods or ability to make political or cultural claims. Above all, therefore, exploitation operates to prevent the social extension of workers’ lives beyond their status as a disposable commodity.

Such a labor regime has been present in Lebanon for Syrians since the 1950s, even as their numbers have fallen and risen with political crises. By the summer of 2005, many of those who withdrew in March and April had returned or were thinking of doing so, and the Lebanese public, in the wake of a virtual halt in construction and agriculture, was admitting, at least tacitly, that it  needs those Syrian workers. [21] Even with all the talk of new regulations, history suggests that, absent an organized challenge from below, this exploitative regime will continue for some time.


[1] André Bourgey and J. Pharès, “Les bidonvilles de l’agglomeration de Beyrouth,” Revue de Géographie de Lyon 48/2 (1973), p. 121. The resident working population of Lebanon in 1970 was 572,000 Lebanese. Albert Dagher, “Al-Quwa al ‘Amila wa al-Namu fi Lubnan” in Linking Economic Growth and Social Development in Lebanon (Beirut: UN Development Program, 2000), p. 86. Thus (discounting other foreign labor), Syrians made up about a third of the working population of Lebanon. Likewise, the fact that the population of Beirut was 45 percent foreign in 1975 was not seen as a cause for alarm. André Bourgey, “La guerre et ses conséquences géographiques au Liban,” Annales de Géographies 94 (1985) p. 3.

[2] Al-Nahar, July 24, 1995. For a thorough treatment of this debate, see John Chalcraft, “Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon: The Limits of Transnational Integration, Communitarian Solidarity and Popular Agency,” paper delivered at the Sixth Mediterranean Social and Political Research Meeting of the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies, Florence, March 16–20, 2005.

[3] Al-Usbu‘ al-‘Arabi, August 14, 1995.

[4] Al-Nahar, August 4, 1997. The other four problems he identified were Israeli occupation, the Palestinian refugees, the Syrian troop presence and Lebanese emigration.

[5] See Nada Oweijane Khoury, “L’Immigration au Liban: Aspects socio-economiques et incidences identitaires,” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Université Libanaise, Institut des Sciences Sociales (Section II) and Université Rene Descartes (Paris V); and Bassam al-Hashim, “Al-Ittifaqat al Ijtima’iyya” in al-‘Alaqat al-Lubaniyya al-Suriyya (Antalya: al- Haraka al-Thaqafiyya, 2000), pp. 110–148.

[6] Al-Nahar, August 19, 1995.

[7] Al-Nahar, July 24, 1995 and al-Nahar, January 3, 1998.

[8] See, for example, Oweijane Khoury, “L’Immigration au Liban.”

[9] Al-Anwar, January 14, 1993.

[10] See, for example, Oweijane Khoury.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The study appeared in January 1998, according to Murqus in al-Nahar, July 3, 1998. A report on Sawaya’s study appeared in al-Hayat, June 28, 1998.

[13] See the article by Mikhail Awwad in al-Diyar, January 26, 1998.

[14] Nasri Khouri, General Secretary of the Syrian-Lebanese Supreme Council, quoted in al-Sharq, July 1, 1997.

[15] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Syrian workers and Lebanese employers are from interviews conducted by the author in the spring and summer of 2004.

[16] Khouri, quoted in al-Sharq, July 1, 1997.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Al-Nahar, August 10, 2002.

[19] Damascus claimed 36 dead and 250 injured. Al-Hayat, July 19, 2005. The Lebanese daily al-Safir reported on two deaths and more than a dozen attacks on April 19, 2005.

[20] See Dagher, “Al-Quwa al-‘Amila.” See also economists Kamal Hamdan, Marwan Iskandar and Ghassan ‘Ayyash, quoted in al-Safir, April 19, 2005.

[21] See, for example, al-Nahar, March 23, 2005.

How to cite this article:

John Chalcraft "Of Specters and Disciplined Commodities," Middle East Report 236 (Fall 2005).

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