Beirut, Lebanon – A number of long metal arms swing over the city skyline in Beirut. In one open-air construction yard after another, Syrian labourers build sleek 25- and 30-floor towers, working without safety regulations, health insurance or union protection.
According to the International Labour Organization’s regional office for Arab states, around 12 percent of Syrian refugees work in construction in Lebanon. The Lebanese Contractors Union counts 350,000 Syrian workers.
But the data is uncertain, according to Choghig Kasparian, a professor at Saint Joseph University and an analyst with the Migration Policy Centre. “There is no precise and quantitative information on the number and profile of Syrian workers in Lebanon, since many of them have been present in Lebanon for several decades,” Kasparian told Al Jazeera, noting amid an influx of Syrians fleeing the country’s civil war, the Lebanese government has introduced measures to regulate their entry and residency.
Ever since the directive was introduced in January, Syrians workers have needed a sponsor to guarantee them a job. Businesses have to obtain work permits from the Ministry of Labour by submitting individual application forms. According to Nadim Asmar from the Lebanese Contractors Syndicate for Public Works and Buildings, “the government introduced these changes for security reasons”.
According to the ministry’s official position, the sponsor was also a necessary condition in the past, but the new directive makes the process more effective.
However, refugees and analysts say it also makes the lives of vulnerable labourers even more difficult. “Syrian nationals registered with UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] have to pay an annual fee of $200 and submit a number of documents, including a notarised pledge not to work,” Dalia Aranki, an adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Al Jazeera. “For Syrian nationals not registered with UNHCR, the requirements include paying an annual fee of $200 and submitting a number of documents, including a pledge of responsibility [usually from a Lebanese national or entity], which includes a pledge to acquire a work permit for the Syrian national.
“In reality, these requirements are interpreted differently on a case by case basis and depending on the General Security office that is processing the application,” Aranki added. “Also, the documents required for any application to renew residency are costly and can be difficult and expensive to obtain.”
In one large construction yard in the eastern Beirut neighbourhood of Ashrafieh, about 400 mostly Syrian labourers seek work. Many sleep in the basement of the unfinished building; others show up at the yard at 7am, hoping there will be something for them to do that day.
“They are employed [under such circumstances] because there is no union protection, no job security. Today there is the need for 300 workers to prepare the cement, but tomorrow [there] maybe not. The firm saves money on labour in this way, cutting all the costs down,” Enrico Luparelli, a Beirut-based Italian architect, told Al Jazeera.
They solder iron without glasses, use the jackhammer without headphones and walk in the yard in slippers.
According to one of the managers of the construction enterprise, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity: “We use Syrians either because Lebanese people don’t want to work in this sector or Syrians work for lower salaries, longer hours. They are usually daily workers, according to work needs; sometimes we need 500 workers, other times we need less.”
Most of the labour force is unskilled, Luparelli noted. “Few Syrians are familiar with construction techniques. Many were bakers, retailers, coiffeurs or still students,” he said. But after fleeing Syria’s civil war, they have been left with few alternatives for work.
Said Marouf, who was an engineering student at the University of Damascus, now works in construction in Lebanon.
“I left Syria a year and half ago. My family is still there,” Marouf told Al Jazeera. “I hoped to work as an engineer, but employers prefer Lebanese graduates for these positions.”
Like his fellow Syrian workers, Marouf earns a salary ranging from $15 to $20 for a 12- to 13-hour shift – a meagre sum when compared to the price of the multimillion-dollar apartments they are building.
The workers build fully furnished luxury apartments, complete with shining lobbies, massive swimming pools, gyms, drawing rooms and solar panels. Gripping onto thin scaffolding and without proper equipment, these Syrians risk their lives daily to build luxury in a country that is not their own. They are often dressed in plastic slippers, dirty jeans and tank tops. In mid-January, one worker died after being crushed by a concrete block that accidentally unhooked from a crane.
“They solder iron without glasses, use the jackhammer without headphones and walk in the yard in slippers,” Luparelli said.
With regards to security measures and controls at construction sites, the Ministry of Labour noted: “We have a small number of inspectors to control buildings and companies. Since Syrians are too many, we cannot control all, but we intend to hire more [inspectors].”