Lebanon: Multiculturalism or Artfully Masked Discrimination?

Tailored advertisements for Lebanon's service workers

Lebanon is aesthetically beautiful with its lush greenery and seemingly endless miles of coastline flirting with the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea. In a region known for its vast deserts, Lebanon is certainly a strange exception. Living in ultra modern Beirut, it is easy to forget that the country has been plagued by war for generations. With its bustling cafes, gorgeous boardwalk (the “Corniche”) filled with street vendors, young lovers holding hands, and families walking carelessly as small children ride bicycles and eat chocolate bars or freshly grilled corn, Beirut sometimes feels like an urban paradise. As a middle-income country, Lebanon does not suffer from the same degree of poverty like Egypt and Syria. It also does not have the incredible wealth of countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Yet, there is an interesting social dynamic here that I did not expect to find…..

Fresh corn and juice on the Corniche

The services sector is the predominant contributor to the country’s economy. What surprises me is that in almost every café, restaurant, or bar frequented by Beirut’s middle and upper class residents and Western expatriates, there is a clear hierarchy in the employee structure—waiters are generally Lebanese or Egyptian, and almost certainly the one responsible for mopping the floors and removing the trash is a darker skinned man, most probably from an African country such as Ethiopia or Cote D’Ivoire. Also, those seemingly carefree curious children enjoying the excitement of the Corniche can often do so   because they are closely being watched by an Asian (Filipina, Indian, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, or Nepali) or African (Ethiopian) nanny following closely behind to ensure their safety.

I continue to be torn over whether this importation of foreign, cheap labor, in Lebanon and all over the world, is ultimately a positive or negative step for global economic development and social equality.

On the positive side:

•    These Asian and African service workers are presumably able to find work that they may not otherwise get in their own countries and send home much needed remittances to support their families and domestic economies; the Western Union money transfer stores (which there are more than 700 of in Lebanon!) have colorful advertisements such as “Can you send money to Sri Lanka for as little as $10? YES!”;
•    For many young women working in Lebanon, it seems like they have greater opportunities to be socially free that may not be possible when living at home with their families; I love to walk around early on Sunday mornings to see the groups of young Asian women (presumably service workers) walking with arms linked, giggling and window shopping on their day off.
•    Thus far, I have not heard so many horror stories about employers withholding passports, rampant sexual violence, and inhumane work conditions as is true for many service workers living in Gulf countries, which suggests that work conditions may be more fair and ethical in Lebanon.

On the negative side:
•    A class of racially and ethnically distinguishable service workers reinforces the idea that these specific countries are meant only to serve Lebanon’s well-to-do;
•    With salaries typically less than the national minimum wage (approximately $300/month), I wonder how the financial rewards from working in Lebanon can truly impact the domestic economies and family conditions of these workers;
•    It is still expected that enough of these workers are brought to work in Lebanon without proper information regarding their duties or the benefits they will receive; sexual violence and exploitation surely exist but may just be harder to see—one case is one case too much.

It would be silly to act as if my home country, the U.S., is not dealing with similar challenges regarding imported labor. This is not a new debate or one that is likely to go away anytime soon. But I am still taken aback that a country like Lebanon, with its constant intermingling of Arabic, French, and English, and clear pride in its cosmopolitan culture, has such a distinct racial and ethnic separation when it comes to its service workers. It seems that “multiculturalism” exists on a purely lateral level with the upper tiers of society, but has failed to penetrate the country’s socially diverse layers.

In theory, if those that hire foreign labor and those who come to work benefit mutually from the relationship, then there is no issue. However, as we Kiva Fellows have come to quickly learn, what makes sense in theory and what is actually applied can differ drastically. I am in no position to suggest whether the presence of these service workers is in the best interest of Lebanon or their home countries. I simply aim to highlight the very international labor spectrum that exists in a country that is built both on diversity and segregation. What I have come to observe is that the presence of many cultures does not necessarily equate to multiculturalism.

Nishita Roy is a Kiva Fellow (Class 10) serving in Lebanon. Get involved with Lebanon field partners, Ameen or Al Majmoua today!

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