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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Migrant Workers In Libya

I have a morning routine: get up around 6:30, shower, make tea, and eat breakfast while watching Al Jazeera. Though the earthquake in New Zealand and the drug wars on the US-Mexico border have gotten a bit of attention, most Al Jazeera stories this week revolve around Libya, and rightly so. I've commented before that it's somewhat surreal to be in the Middle East as massive changes occur. Is this like being a American Fulbrighter in Eastern Europe in 1990 or so? Egypt, Tunisia, Libya. Yemen? Bahrain? Iran?

To Al Jazeera's credit, the network has covered migrant workers currently in a frightening limbo at ports and in camps in places like Benghazi. Also to its credit, the New York Times ran a compelling piece on the situation the other day. In Libya, many of these migrant workers come from southern and southeast Asia, and to a lesser degree from African nations like Ghana and Nigeria. They work for foreign construction companies as well as corporations from whom you buy things. And they work for extremely low wages, of course. And at times they are the targets of Qaddafi's paranoia and tyrrany--especially black Africans, the Times reports.

Many are stranded because their employees, who often "hold" their workers' passports for them (gee, thanks), have in some cases fled the country, forgetting to return papers to their vulnerable employees. It's a bad situation, and I wonder if this is a moment in which maybe the international community could raise its awareness of the condition of foreign workers in much of the region here. Including Lebanon. After that morning routine, as I walk to campus, I pass construction sites (lots of building going on in the Hamra neighborhood) where many of the workers aren't Lebanese. And women, also not Lebanese, walking the children of their bosses to school. And a travel agency with signs in the window advertising one-way flights "for your domestic workers" from places like Ethiopia. Labor is quite cheap in the region, thanks to migrant workers who have few rights and protections. I hope "democracy revolutions" can be positive for them too.

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