Lebanon Unlimited: Neoliberalism Dominates the Workplace
Developments in the Lebanese political system during the post-civil war period have demonstrated that the state has come to behave as though it has completely forgotten the basics of labor law philosophy. At the very least, some of its organs and dignitaries have worked hard to totally obscure and reject this philosophy.
The philosophy of labor law is based on the existence of a large gap between the economic power of employers and that of workers, a gap that obligates the state to intervene to restore some balance to work relations. This philosophy [of the state as intervenor] developed in modern legislation. It first appeared in the 19th century and culminated in the establishment of the International Labour Organization, which has accomplished a lot on the legislative and normative levels.
In Lebanon, social forces succeeded in making a number of social gains in the period stretching from independence in 1943 to the breakout of civil war in 1975. However, the post-war period starting in 1990 witnessed the suspension or elimination of some of the mechanisms of worker protection. The post-war regulations have reflected, and continue to reflect, a steady drift towards an adoption of neoliberal policies that strip workers of their fundamental rights and turn them into nothing more than a commodity, subject to the conditions of supply and demand in the labor market. Naturally, this puts workers in vulnerable social and humanitarian circumstances.
Before reviewing the abundant evidence of this neoliberal trend, this article will point out some distinguishing characteristics of the post-war period that explain the substantial decline in worker protections. The most prominent factors are as follows:
The flooding of the Lebanese labor market with foreign labor, and the subjection of this labor to the restrictive conditions of the sponsorship system. This led to the rise of employment ties that afford no legal protection under circumstances in which workers’ positions are weak, and all the power is concentrated in the hands of employers. In addition to the negative effects that this large influx of foreign labor had on Lebanese labor and the negotiating power of the union movement, its spread led to the formation of an extremely negative model of work relations, paving the way for an enormous decline of cultural values pertaining to employment;
The decline in the presence of a discourse of rights in public discourse due to the growth of partisanship, and the power-sharing regulations that accompanied it. This facilitated the fragmentation and dispersion of the working class by dividing its members along political-sectarian lines. Demands for rights became marginal, rarely enjoying public attention. The best evidence of this may be the absence of any mentionable reaction to the suspension for more than a year in 2011-2012, of the labor arbitration councils, and hence the entire labor law;
The increasingly intimate alliance between the political class that emerged from bitter partisan rivalry and the owners of large capital. The recent debates over the pay scales bill and the bill to liberalize old rent contracts very clearly reflected this alliance. While partisanship has subordinated the working class by making it dependent and part of political-sectarian projects, the growing alliance between the political class and capital owners has, in stark contrast, created a consensus over the limit beyond which political disputes end, and processes of quota politics and dividing up the spoils begin; and
The decline and factionalization of union forces. This factor is a logical result of the aforementioned factors, and has made one of the most significant and direct contributions to the growth of the neoliberal phenomenon. As the reforms and gains achieved in the pre-war era were not possible without the impetus provided by union activism, the decline of labor union activity facilitated the attacks on these reforms and gains.
These are the main factors that paved the way for neoliberalism to dominate the workplace with weak, almost nonexistent opposition from the social forces affected. The evidence of this domination is presented below.
State Intervention to Protect Employer Privileges
The most notable facet of neoliberalism in the Lebanese system is the overturning of labor law philosophy through the adoption of the sponsorship system, to regulate the growing number of non-Lebanese workers.
At its core, this sponsorship system ties a foreign worker’s legal residency in Lebanon to their continued employment with a specific employer. Hence, the worker’s resignation, irrespective of how bad the employer’s transgressions may be, is cause for revoking their residency permit and for deportation. A resigning worker can only avoid deportation if the employer agrees to relinquish their sponsorship to another person. Hence, workers find themselves compelled to stay silent and refrain from making any demands, regardless of how just these demands may be, to avoid irking their employers. Workers who can no longer endure [their working conditions] must nevertheless try as much as possible to make an arrangement with and stay in the good graces of their employers, so that the latter agree to relinquish their sponsorships. Usually, employers relinquish their sponsorships in exchange for the workers surrendering all of their rights or, in the best case scenario, a significant portion of them. In practice, this usually puts employers in a position of impunity from accountability and prosecution, thus granting them the privilege to severely exploit their workers. Workers cannot free themselves from the yoke of this relationship unless they are prepared to leave Lebanon, which, in practical terms, means that their dramas and demands leave with them. Consequently, the right of foreign workers to decent work is contingent on the goodwill and good intentions of their employers.
Hence, instead of establishing regulations to protect workers, the state has established regulations that protect the privileges of employers. Furthermore, in 2015 the sponsorship system was expanded to also encompass Syrian workers, as I have argued elsewhere.
New Exceptions in the Protection Granted by Labor Law
The remarkable new development in the area of flouting labor laws is the adoption of the idea of free economic zones. It began with Law no. 18 of 2008, issued on September 5, 2008, which established a free economic zone in Tripoli and culminated in the agreement to set up another free zone in the neighbouring region of Batroun on April 23, 2015. The latter proposal, apparently an attempt to balance the divvying up of the pie among the different sectarian leaderships, is still being studied by the parliamentary joint committees.
Law no. 18 of 2008, unlike those governing free economic zone systems found in other countries, did not merely grant the institutions authorized to operate within the free zones exemptions and benefits at the state’s expense (exemptions from taxes and custom duties, administrative facilitation, and conditions suitable for construction). Rather, it further exempted them from having to adhere to the public system [of checks and balances] that protects workers, thus increasing the extent to which workers are dependent on the will of the employer for sustaining their livelihood.
On one hand, salary setting and termination of employment became subject to contractual freedom between the two parties, and therefore contingent on their negotiating abilities and on supply and demand, i.e., the “needs” of the market. This opened the door for the employer to disregard fundamental guarantees provided by national laws, particularly labor law (minimum wage, compensation for unfair dismissal, notice period, the various vacations, etc.).
On the other hand, and of no less concern, the law exempted employers from registering their workers in the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). The legislator was content to entrust the employer with the responsibility for providing healthcare benefits, similar or superior to those provided by the NSSF. By restricting these obligations to healthcare, workers are deprived of other social services, the most important being family allowances and severance pay.
Even with regards to healthcare, the transfer of the responsibility of guaranteeing such a right from the state to employers is, in reality, an enormous derogation of workers’ rights and one of the main gateways into the neoliberal system, according to its leading critics. If one of the main prerequisites for neoliberalism is the spread of competition in labor markets, along with the heightened feeling of instability and insecurity that this creates among workers, then it begins by replacing the system of social cohesion and solidarity with private arrangements managed by employers in a manner that consolidates their control over workers. This opens the door widely for workers’ social rights to be determined not by general laws that are applied universally among workers, but by the degree of good relations that each maintain with their employers. Devolving the responsibility for distributing social rights from the state to employers turns the latter into absolute masters, free to discriminate positively or negatively between their workers. This, in turn, leads to feuding and conflicts of interests between workers. In Lebanon, these developments [in the alteration of work relations] have all occurred against the backdrop of a judiciary whose role and effectiveness in protecting weaker parties remains limited.
In addition to the aforementioned issues, the free economic zone system in Tripoli allows for 50% of work positions to be filled by foreign labor. Naturally, this increases competition within the labor market. Given the fusion of the sponsorship mechanism and the economic area mechanism, this naturally allows employers to amass mechanisms of controlling workers, increasing the latter’s vulnerability.
Making matters worse, the law that established the Tripoli economic zone contains no checks to prevent the institutions authorized to operate therein, and capitalize on the exemptions from conducting activities beyond the borders of the zone. This flexibility exacerbates concerns that the economic zone system, in its social aspect, is actually a lab experiment that will lead into the universal violation of workers’ rights, and not a limited exception confined to one specific geographical area.
Finally, these exceptions reinforce and legitimize the exceptions to the labor law’s protections that the law itself stipulates in its 7th article. Specifically, these exceptions apply to domestic workers and agricultural workers. Barring the leap in the dark that previous Labor Minister Charbel Nahas performed on the eve of his resignation by drafting a bill to abolish these two exceptions, in recent years successive labor ministers have all favored retaining them, albeit with eased conditions. This is evident from the fact that the demand to abolish exceptionalism was met with workshops to draft special laws that improve work conditions for the excepted groups, without actually abolishing the exceptions themselves. While the ministers have cited the “unique” nature of these jobs as an excuse to retain exceptionalism, close scrutiny of the provisions in these bills quickly reveals the reason that they prefer introducing special laws to abolishing exceptionalism: they want to limit the rights granted to these workers in several areas. In essence, the special bills grant ‘half rights’. At any rate, these poorly conceived proposals have, just like the proposed amendments to the labor law as a whole, not moved forward. This indicates a lack of political will to introduce any improvement, regardless of how inadequate and incomplete it may be.
Weak Mechanisms for Enforcing Labor Law
The third pillar of the neoliberal system is the weakness of the mechanisms for enforcing labor laws. The ineffectiveness of these laws corresponds, to a large extent, to the absence of effective enforcement mechanisms. Notably, this situation has persisted for many years without giving rise to any attempts to resolve or move beyond it.
This weakness is most evident in the sluggish operation of the labor arbitration councils. According to statistics from the Civil Observatory for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, the average time spent per case before these councils has exceeded 3.5 years in the Beirut Governorate and North Governorate, and 5.5 years in the Mount Lebanon Governorate. The councils were even suspended for a complete year (2011-2012) due to a disagreement over who should represent workers and employers, without it provoking any uproar. Exacerbating the ineffectiveness of these councils is the deficient roles played by their members and those participating in them. For example, the role that the workers’ representatives in the councils play in defending legal positions that support workers’ rights has declined; they are generally relegated to being present without effectively participating in deliberations. Furthermore, some of the government commissioners (who are, in principle, bound by the directives of the Ministry of Labor) in these councils have issued memoranda that go so far as to deny the right of groups of workers to litigate or seek legal remedy. Despite the efforts to solve some or all of these problems by drafting amendments to the labor law and its regulatory decrees (which would, for example, subject workers’ representatives to professional training upon appointment and establish new councils on a district level), these bills have stalled in the absence of any political will to approve them.
In addition to the weakness of the labor arbitration councils, there is also a shortfall in the number of Ministry of Labor inspectors. Their capacity to prove violations is also limited. Furthermore, there is a major deficiency within the Arbitration Committee for Resolving Collective Labor Disputes, which has jurisdiction in all disputes of a collective nature. This represents another facet of neoliberalism that I now turn to.
Mechanisms for Isolating Workers and Limiting Opportunities for Collective Action
Efforts to undermine the union movement, especially when it concerns the steps taken to subjugate the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL) and the Union Coordination Committee, the latter of which has almost become a substitute for the former due to the protest movements of 2013 and 2014, continue to generate long-winded debates. The careers of Elias Abu Rizk, former president of the CGTL, and Hanna Gharib, former president of the Public Secondary School Teachers League in Lebanon, demonstrate the magnitude of these steps, as does Lebanon’s reluctance to ratify International Labor Organization Convention No. 87, which concerns the freedom to unionize, and its refusal to acknowledge the right of public servants to form unions or professional organizations (article 15 of the civil servants law). The angry response of current Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi to the formation of a domestic workers’ union, and his threats to raid the inauguration ceremony, further underscore the anti-unionism trend. It is most astonishing that his anger was directed towards the group whose rights are still being violated more than any other due to the state’s negligence in protecting them.
Of no lesser importance is the covert attempt to reject the concept of “collective disputes” between workers and employers, i.e., a dispute over a specific violation or act of negligence on the part of the employer that affects the rights of all of their workers, or groups among them. This concept constitutes the basis for bringing collective cases before the Arbitration Committee for Resolving Collective Labor Disputes. In Lebanese legislation, such disputes represent one of the unique situations in which mass action can be pursued in court. The effort to reject the concept is very clearly evident in the aforementioned committee’s jurisprudence; it has dismissed the cases brought before it on the basis that it has no competence to address them because “each worker has rights that are independent of the second party, i.e., the second worker”. Suffice to note, the Committee has not issued a ruling to settle a collective dispute since 2005. Among the most important consequences of this jurisprudence is that workers must present their individual cases separately, which places a greater burden upon them and naturally weakens union activism and the worker solidarity that it represents. The workers remain isolated individuals in their confrontations with the lords of capital.
 See: Joelle Boutros’, “Thus Occurred the Final Major Amendment to the Labor Law 40 Years Ago”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 28, April 2015.
 See: Nizar Saghieh’s, “Manufacturing Vulnerability in Lebanon: Legal Policies as Efficient Tools of Discrimination”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 25, February 2015.
 See: Nizar Saghieh’s, “Developing Tripoli: Neoliberalism out of Fear of Fundamentalism”, Al Akhbar, April 29, 2009.
 Foucault. Naissance de la bio-politique (cours 1978-1979); Maurizio Lazzarato, Gouvernement des inegalites, critique de l’insecurite neo-liberale, 2008.
 The first attempt in the area of domestic workers occurred in 2010 and was driven by then-Labor Minister Boutros Harb. The attempt was repeated by former Labor Minister Salim Jreissati in 2013, and then by the current Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi. In the same vein, Jreissati also endeavored to draft a law proposal relating to agricultural labor.
 See: “The Labor Arbitration Councils in Numbers”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 28, April 2015.
 See: Sarah Wansa’s, “The Government Commissioners in the Work Arbitration Councils: Whose Interests Are They Defending?”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 28, April 2015.
 See: Adib bou Habib’s, “Unionist Adib bou Habib: My Experience With The Labor Arbitration Councils”, interview conducted by Rania Hamza, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 28, April 2015.
 See: Joelle Boutros’, “The Government in Confronting the Unions in Lebanon: 2-0?”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 25, February 2015. See: Adib bou Habib’s, “Unionist Adib bou Habib”; Sarah Wansa’s, “Individual or Collective Struggle? When the Right is Lost as Responsibilities Are Passed Around”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 28, April 2015.