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Syrian refugees change the Lebanese labor scene

Now this market is in Beirut’s southern suburb, where Syrian refugees have launched a duplicate

Published: Updated:

For a long time, Lebanese people have known Souq al-Hamideye, Damascus’s most famous popular market, as a place where they used to shop for cheap goods.

Now this market is in Beirut’s southern suburb, where Syrian refugees have launched a duplicate.

“This is one way to feel at home,” one tenant of a shop in the place said, “we target Syrians like us with our cheap goods,” he added.

With the large scale inflow of refugees, now at 1.5 million - around a third of tiny Lebanon’s population - the scene of Syrian workers in Lebanese shops is familiar these days, with employers trying to adjust their businesses to cope with difficult economic conditions.

Other Syrian refugees are starting their own small businesses in the country such as grocery shops, bakeries, mechanical repair and carpentry workshops.

The new source of low cost labor has dramatically affected unemployment rates. Around a quarter of Lebanese are believed to be unemployed.

The resigned labor minister Sej’aan Qazzi mentioned recently that 36 percent of Lebanese youth are unemployed and 47 percent of university graduates do not find suitable jobs in a market which creates only 4,000 vacancies annually - compared to 32,000 graduates.

The ministry continuously warned companies against firing Lebanese employees and replacing them with foreign workers, particularly Syrians. A crisis cell was established last year to supervise the implementation of the labor law.

In several statements the former labor minister expressed fear over the impact of the Syrian workers on the local unemployment rates. Around 170,000 Lebanese live below the poverty line.

Most refugees work in informal, short-term and ad hoc jobs, usually for three to four days at a time before they have to look for another job. They usually take whatever available work regardless of their qualifications and skills.

A qualitative survey conducted by non-governmental organization Oxfam and the American University of Beirut estimated that most Syrian refugee households in Lebanon generate less than $5,000 per year, but some earn up to $8,000, due to larger household sizes.

The study considered that a five-member Syrian refugee household needs an annual income of $7,800 to live above the poverty line. As such, it noted that the current typical annual income of a Syrian refugee household is 30 percent lower than the poverty line and is lower than the official minimum annual wage of $5,400 for Lebanese citizens.

The survey indicated that the income of Syrian refugee households includes a daily wage and humanitarian assistance, which accounts for about 40 percent of the annual income for most refugees. This means the actual income earned from labor market participation is about $3,000 per year.

Changed market

Syrian refugee households spend about a quarter of their income on buying food from the market.

Asked how the Syrian refugee crisis affects the Lebanese labor market, Khalid Abu Ismail, chief of the economic policy section at the ‎United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, said that the Lebanese labor market had been affected by regional instability, low oil prices and the Syrian conflict next door.

“The Syrian refugees can have an accentuating impact on this reduced demand by offering work at a lower than average wage; however, not all Lebanese are going to be impacted,” Ismail said.

“First because high professionals among the Syrians did not come to Lebanon in large numbers and those who did already emigrated to other destinations, also because for the Syrian professionals it is difficult to work in an informal economy setting.”

He stressed that “the pressure has come from low skilled Syrian workers who are competing with their equivalents in Lebanon. But since most of these jobs are being undertaken by non-Lebanese, the negative impact on Lebanese will be rather minimal.”

The Lebanese economy could stand to benefit from Syrian refugee workers “if it proposes suitable development projects with positive spillover effects on the both local community and the refugees,” the official said, citing the example of lucrative agricultural and industrial projects in Lebanon’s north.

There’s also the issue of work permits for Syrian refugees in the country.

Matthew Saltmarsh, Senior Communication Officer at the “United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees” (UNHCR), said “since the start of last year the Lebanese government has changed the residency requirements for Syrian refugees and part of the new regulations is a pledge not to work.”

“We are working with the Lebanese government to ease these restrictions on the renewal of their residency, and we recommend opening specific sectors where there is no competition with Lebanese and more specifically in agriculture construction and cleaning services or generally low paying jobs”.