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New Directions in the History and Politics of Labor in Lebanon

Panel VII-13, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel approaches labor from the perspective of what it did and continues to do in Lebanon, rather than what it failed or fails to do. The history and politics of labor in Lebanon has often been written from a standpoint of failure, signaling a departure from modern developmental norms: the failure of an industrial proletariat to form, the failure of a self-conscious working class to emerge, and the failure of a revolution—or at least a proper welfare state—to materialize. But from the late 1940s through the mid-1970s, the Lebanese labor movement successfully organized itself around the figure of the formally employed, male citizen urban worker, forming a national trade union structure and forcing the creation of an incipient welfare state. This established a series of foundational distinctions and enduring exclusions: urban versus agrarian, citizen versus migrant, productive versus reproductive, formal versus informal or domestic. Bringing together methods of ethnography, archival research, and oral history, this panel offers an interdisciplinary challenge to the entrenched analytic of “failure” by examining the diverse and shifting forms of racialized, gendered, and migrant labor that have sustained Lebanon’s economy since the mid-20th century. Working beyond the confines of methodological nationalism, it takes labor in Lebanon as an optic onto local, regional, and transnational economies across multiple sectors: oil, agriculture, domestic work, scrap metal, and small businesses. Bridging the migrant-citizen divide, the panel examines how Lebanese state policies of border regulation, immigration controls, and the casualization of labor since independence have shaped and constrained the terms of class struggle and possibilities of worker solidarity across different domains of social life. From Lebanese oil workers’ notions of the “brotherhood of labor” from the 1950s through 1970s, to intergenerational circuits of labor migration between Lebanon and Sudan since the 1960s, to the emergence and expansion of the shawish recruitment system since the 1990s, to the salvaging labor of Syrian waste pickers in Beirut, to recent struggles over the closure of Syrian-run businesses against the backdrop of Lebanon’s economic crisis, these papers offer an empirically-grounded and theoretically interdisciplinary challenge to the analytic of ‘failure.’ This panel ultimately argues that Lebanon’s historical trajectory and present conditions are not exceptional nor evidence of ‘lack,’ but rather fit within patterns of uneven development and transnational divisions of labor across the global North and the global South, from the heyday of state-led development to the neoliberal era.
  • Dr. Ziad M. Abu-Rish -- Discussant, Chair
  • Mr. Zachary Cuyler -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Anna Reumert -- Presenter
  • Samuel Dinger -- Presenter
  • China Sajadian -- Presenter
  • Mr. Zachary Cuyler
    This paper examines the role of oil workers in the Lebanese labor movement from the 1940s through the 1970s. It shows how workers in oil pipeline, refining, and distribution companies developed nationalist and masculinist conceptions of the working class—which I term the “brotherhood of labor”—in confrontations with foreign capital embodied by international oil companies. It traces how Lebanese oil workers and their allies in the wider labor movement used their leverage over critical flows of energy, commodities, and capital to fight for a welfare state designed to insulate the “brotherhood of labor” and their dependents against economic uncertainty at a national scale. It shows how this imaginary shaped oil workers’ struggle to build a Lebanese welfare state around the figure of the male citizen worker, establishing a series of foundational distinctions and exclusions that remained relevant for decades: urban versus agrarian, citizen versus migrant, productive versus reproductive, formal versus informal or domestic. The history of labor and the welfare state in Lebanon is often narrated as a failure, and as a departure from historical norms. But as this history makes clear, the trajectory of Lebanon’s labor movement and welfare state fits within patterns observable in both the global North and the global South. This paper will suggest that attention to the social struggles surrounding transnational infrastructures of extraction can prompt scholars to re-evaluate our understandings of processes of postcolonial state- and class-formation.
  • China Sajadian
    Agriculture in Lebanon is often narrated as a process of steady decline since the 1970s: the ‘disappearance’ of the Lebanese smallholder peasant, the withdrawal or failure of the state, and the agricultural sector’s diminishing role within the national economy. The history and ongoing presence of Syrian farmworkers in the Lebanese countryside sits ambiguously within this national narrative: exploitable, flexible, and largely invisible, yet vital to Lebanon’s food system. These tensions were brought further to light as countless numbers of these formerly seasonal workers became refugees throughout the Syrian conflict. Based on eighteen months of ethnographic research among Syrian and Lebanese agriculturalists in Lebanon’s Biqa’ Valley from 2018 to 2019, this paper radically reframes the nationalist account of Lebanon’s agricultural “decline” from a feminist agrarian political economy perspective. It recasts Lebanon’s agrarian question as a regional and global predicament rooted in a decades-long crisis of rural reproduction across borders. Based on oral history data, the paper traces how a segment of upwardly mobile Syrian migrants (shawish) established a network of camps in Lebanon for an increasingly feminized population of eastern Syrian farmworkers, as rural families became dependent on remittances from abroad, particularly as Syria’s economy liberalized throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In tandem, it charts how many Lebanese smallholders were pushed out of agriculture by the threat of indebtedness from the 1970s onward. In their wake remained a narrowing class of Lebanese contract farmers (daman) who pay rent to landlords, take on the risks of production and marketing, and hire Syrian farmworkers through camps run by shawish. Yet because of their gendered connection to reproductive labor, these fraught agrarian histories of displacement, debt, and class antagonism were treated as marginal to the “official” history of agriculture within Biqa’ residents’ vernacular narratives about the past. More often, these histories were expressed in the homely details of everyday life – in Syrian women’s practices of gleaning and food preservation, for example — and in everyday struggles over what counts as “women’s work” and how that work was remunerated, if at all. By focusing on these local predicaments in light of their global determinations, the paper makes a case for understanding Lebanon’s agrarian question beyond the nationalist frame: as a historically layered process by which agriculturalists on both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border have grappled with the dislocating and distinctly gendered effects of debt and labor precarization for decades.
  • Anna Reumert
    Who is the migrant worker in Lebanon? If we agree that there is no singular subject called the worker, it follows that there is no singular subject called the migrant worker. In Lebanon, migrants labor across many different sectors, from farms and factories to hotels and casinos. Considering the history of labor in the 20th century, it could even be argued that migrant workers have been the prototype subjects of labor, rather than its exception. And yet, migrants in Lebanon from outside the region are often defined in public imagination by the narrow social-legal category of the kafala-contracted domestic worker. Because kafala-contracted workers are legally constrained from politically organizing, they are imagined as existing outside the realm of political action. Yet oral histories collected with migrant workers who lived in Beirut from the 1960s until today reveal that migrants were never not politically engaged. Migrant networks and practices of collective organizing became vital to their survival in Lebanon’s 2019-20 economic collapse, when thousands of migrants across the sectors organized sit-ins calling on their governments to bring them home. In conversation with Sudanese, Kenyan and Ethiopian migrants who lost their jobs in Lebanon’s economic meltdown and slept in front of their embassy throughout 2020, this paper proposes that the migrants’ response to Lebanon’s labor crisis through collective organizing offers lessons for intersectional political organizing. Engaging with Lebanese activist initiatives for coalition building, I argue that the legal, political and social exclusion of migrants from national labor interests hurts Lebanese national workers as much as it hurts foreign workers; in 2020, both groups experienced being after labor, in the double sense of being out of work and in search of it. Their shared predicament did not, at the same time, erase gendered and racial hierarchies that position workers differently in relation to the state, and that impact what political demands they can and cannot make. Understanding the changing political economy and social life of labor in Lebanon and in the region demands that we think across categories of labor and migration, national and foreign, while keeping in mind the material ways in which these categories impact people's access to labor and organizing.
  • Samuel Dinger
    For irregular migrants, status regularization can open the door to transformative opportunities including legal residency, secure employment, access to social services, and family reunification. Expanding access to legal status–whether through speedy asylum procedures, sponsorship programs, amnesties, or other paths–is often a key goal animating the work of migration researchers, activists, and policymakers. Yet is status regularization always unambiguously positive? How do states use regularization to pursue coercive and restrictive aims? And how do irregular migrants resist such efforts and with what consequences? Building on two years of ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviews with young Syrian men living in Lebanon, this paper answers these questions by exploring the contours and consequences of a Lebanese government campaign to regularize the status of Syrian laborers and small business owners who possessed neither a UNHCR registration certificate nor up-to-date residency paperwork. In late 2018, Lebanese General Security began enforcing dormant regulations to regularize Syrian-owned small businesses and target Lebanese enterprises that employed Syrians without the requisite sponsorship (kafala). The fines, fees, and paperwork associated with regularization often exceeded the average annual earnings of a Syrian worker or business owner. This article follows three key interlocutors caught up in this campaign: 1) a wage laborer who resisted incorporation into the kafala system, 2) a small business owner who risked everything by evading regularization, and 3) a restauranteur who pursued legal sponsorship. Through these ethnographic cases, I show how regularization unraveled the fragile web of income-generating activities that supported the small Syrian middle class, producing unprecedented levels of precarity and raising significant doubts about Lebanon’s viability as a place of a refuge. For my interlocutors, this pressure forced difficult choices about whether to evade, resist, submit, flee, or return to Syria at a moment when inflation had begun to erode the value of their savings upon which the viability of their plans and mobility was based. In these circumstances, I show how the move to incorporate migrant workers and entrepreneurs into a formal legal status regime was, paradoxically, also an efficacious way to push them out without violating the principle of non-refoulment, as movement under the duress of regulatory strangulation was illegible to humanitarian agencies that narrowly conceptualized involuntary movement as the product of physical violence.