BEIRUT: Lebanon’s construction sector has been singled out for criticism in a report published Monday that says human rights abuses are rife in the industry as a result of informal working practices.
While Syrian workers have been an integral part of the Lebanese construction sector for decades, the report notes that their numbers have increased dramatically since the start of the Syrian war.
Meanwhile, international financing for infrastructure projects that employ such workers has gone up. “These workers face heightened risk due to their precarious legal status and often informal working conditions,” it says.
The report, published by London-based NGO the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, notes that Lebanon’s construction sector is expected to continue expanding as a result of the Capital Investment Program. The Lebanese government pitched the program at April’s CEDRE conference, held to garner international investment to revitalize the country’s ailing economy and infrastructure.
However, the report, titled “Building Human Rights into Jordan and Lebanon’s Construction Sector,” says that the “expansion of construction projects in these two countries has not been accompanied by a similar ramp-up of protections for workers.”
The report calls on companies in Lebanon and Jordan to adopt policy commitments to human rights and to recognize and monitor the unique risks faced by migrant and refugee workers. It also calls on major donors such as International Finance Institutions to demand greater adherence to human rights standards before green-lighting contracts.
The report additionally calls on the Lebanese and Jordanian governments to reduce informality in the construction sector and loosen restrictions on work permits to incentivize formal work.
Labor Ministry Director-General George Aida denied that Syrians were being exposed to significantly greater risk. “Historically in Lebanon, Syrians have worked in the construction sector here and they do not face problems,” he said.
He noted that Syrians do not need a “kafil” sponsor to work in Lebanon and said mechanisms existed to ensure workers were protected, saying they could contact the Labor Ministry or Lebanese courts to complain of late payments.
He added that insurance was available to cover workplace accidents.
Nevertheless, the report claims that such workers “fall outside legitimate employment structures,” leaving them open to “exploitation by recruiters [who] take advantage of their position ... wage discrimination and frequently delayed payments and ... little recourse to raise and address grievances.”
Reasons for not applying for an official work permit are numerous, according to a video published by the NGO shortly before publication of the report. Such reasons include the belief that obtaining a permit might hinder resettlement or prevent them from receiving humanitarian aid. There is also a belief that employers prefer hiring laborers without a work permit.
The NGO invited a number of local and international construction companies to disclose their human rights due diligence policies for a survey detailed in the report. The report said the low response rate – only two of 38 companies completed the survey – was “catastrophically below” the center’s usual rate.
Despite receiving little engagement from companies themselves, the NGO said publicly available information demonstrated “alarmingly low commitments to worker health and safety,” while noting that none of the 38 companies have public policies related to risks specific to migrants and refugees.
Additional reporting by Joseph Haboush.