Society's ever shifting goalposts

Economic migrants face the continual production of new differences, says Jorg Michael Dostal

May 21, 2009

Lebanon and Syria share a long history going back to the bilad ash-sham, the eastern Mediterranean province of the Ottoman Empire to which they both belonged. They also have in common a more recent post-colonial history of economic interdependency based on temporary labour migration of Syrians to Lebanon since the 1950s. Indeed Lebanese prosperity has to a significant extent been based on Lebanese employers' ability to draft in Syrian migrants to provide "muscle" in a segmented labour market. Syrian workers entered a largely unregulated subsector of the Lebanese economy - being paid substantially less than Lebanese workers in the same field of employment - because wages were still higher than in Syria and the costs of migrating low.

John Chalcraft provides a convincing and multifaceted analysis of this important and ongoing chapter of Mediterranean economic and social history. His point of departure is the notion of "elective affinities" between the two countries: liberal Lebanon relied on statist Syria to provide cheap labour that was available only because Syrian domestic policies worked to limit social costs in fields such as healthcare, education and energy consumption. Thus Syrian male workers were able to leave their families behind in Syria in order to offer their labour in neighbouring Lebanon at a substantial discount.

The author first outlines the development of Syrian labour migration to Lebanon since the 1950s. He rejects any narrow conceptualisation of economic rationality as offered by mainstream economics. Instead, he shows that the decision of Syrian workers to migrate was based on issues relating to the domestic political economy. For example, Syrian land reform in the late 1950s doubled the number of Syrian landowners but the new proprietors depended for the improvement of their holdings on the money economy. Many believed that waged employment in Lebanon would permit them to procure the necessary means and remittances soon turned into a core Syrian income source. Crucially, Syrian workers' agency in Lebanon was aligned with a domestic moral economy; in particular, filial obligation towards parents and extended families made workers accept the harsh conditions under which they laboured in Lebanese construction and certain other trades.

The second section analyses external factors that influenced the position of Syrian migrant workers in Lebanon. The book demonstrates that the intervention of the Syrian Army in Lebanon between 1976 and 2005 and the "Pax Syriana" after the Lebanese civil war did not improve the subordinate position of Syrian migrant workers. Although often accused of being colonisers, most Syrian workers remained outsiders at the margins of Lebanese society. In particular, Chalcraft shows how the Lebanese authorities excluded Syrians from the country's social security by defining them as seasonal and temporary workers even if this was frequently not the case. While Lebanon and Syria signed bilateral labour agreements, they were subsequently ignored and Syrian workers were repeatedly singled out as culprits during Lebanese economic downturns.

The analysis gains considerably from in-depth interviews with different generations of Syrian labour migrants. The migrants' voices clarify why the title of "Invisible Cage" - taken from Max Weber - is appropriate: migrants' hopes for "individual material gains turned out to be impoverishing in relative terms, small apparent gains in status were similarly wiped out by the continual production of new differences".

Some themes could have been developed further. For example, the author combines Marxian political economy and a more open-ended analysis of workers' agency. He repeatedly stresses that migrants operated in a regime of "hegemonic economic control" combining indirect economic subordination with Lebanese employers' direct control. However, the question of how Lebanese and Syrian workers interacted locally and how labour market dualism was maintained for such an exceptionally long period of time - at least in comparison with many other cases - is not explained. While there are numerous references to Lebanese elite opinion, the voices of Lebanese labour are largely absent. Last, the author delivers some polemical punches against the "Subaltern Studies", a postmodernist group of social historians, that could have featured more prominently rather than being confined to the footnotes. But these are minor issues in what will certainly be a lasting contribution.

The Invisible Cage: Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon

By John Chalcraft. Stanford University Press 336pp, £60.95 and £23.50. ISBN 9780804758253 and 758260. Published 15 January 2009.

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