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Lebanon’s labor minister vows to continue crackdown despite wave of protests

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A crackdown in Lebanon against unlicensed workers that set off a wave of protests in Palestinian refugee camps over the summer intensified this month when the first demonstrator was killed. 

The Associated Press reported on August 2 an unidentified gunman targeted Hussein Alaa-Eddine, a Palestinian affiliated with the Fatah party. Alaa-Eddine was shot and killed while protesting in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp. The following day Lebanon’s National News Agency reported clashes took place inside of the camp. The fatality marked nearly one month of sustained protests in the Palestinian neighborhoods and refugee camps of Lebanon–Rashidieh, Bourj al-Shamali, Bourj al-Barajneh, Beddawi, and Shatila. 

The protests first started on July 15, initially with thousands marching and demonstrators burning tires and blocking camp entrances. At the same time a general strike took hold inside some camps where local activists called to boycott outside purchases and prevented outside business from being conducted inside the camps. 

These marches began after the Lebanese Ministry of Labor, led by Camille Abousleiman, announced in late June a promise to “Lebanonize” the labor force, which meant enforcing policies on the books but not practiced that requires all non-citizens to pay for work permits. 

The measure was criticized by Palestinian and Syrian refugees, groups who are often the scapegoats of Lebanon’s economic woes. Yet Lebanon’s ministry of labor deflected accusations of bias in their first announcement of the labor policy enforcement. In a statement on Monday, July 15 statement, the bureau said that “the plan aims to enforce the law and it does not target anybody.”

Protesters take part in a demonstration in solidarity with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and in solidarity with Palestinain prisoners in Israeli jails, in Gaza city on August 07, 2019. Protests over labour conditions for Palestinians in Lebanon are spreading from refugee camps into city streets as frustration grows over curbs on their civil rights. (Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour/APA Images)

Protesters take part in a demonstration in solidarity with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and in solidarity with Palestinain prisoners in Israeli jails, in Gaza city on August 07, 2019. Protests over labour conditions for Palestinians in Lebanon are spreading from refugee camps into city streets as frustration grows over curbs on their civil rights. (Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour/APA Images)

In recent years, Lebanese policy towards Palestinians had seemingly eased. A 2010 Labor law waived fees individual Palestinians needed to pay to obtain a work permit, yet the law still requires employers to apply for work permits for Palestinians at a cost. Up until recently authorities looked the other way if businesses did not file the required paperwork. Then Abousleiman’s agency announced on June 30 businesses had less than two weeks to secure work permits for any employers of foreign nationals, including those with refugee status. By late July, Lebanese authorities had shut down at least 34 companies. 

Many of those in firm opposition to the measures were quick to point out their politically motivated nature, as well as their disastrous effects on Lebanese society.

Nidal Khalaf, a graduate student studying engineering in Beirut, joined protesters on July 16 in the capital city to demand an end to the labor policy. “The political motivations are not new,” he said, explaining demonstrators are frustrated, “knowing that our situation in Lebanon is itself insecure.”

Many Palestinians view the Lebanon’s labor laws as a means to oust Palestinians entirely from Lebanon’s workforce. 

Ahed Bhar, a United Nations employee from Shatila refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut’s south surmised, “When they want to ban us from working, we’re classified a ‘foreign workers.’”

He continued, “If you want to consider me a ‘foreigner’, ok; but a foreigner in this country can own an apartment […]Why consider me a foreigner in my labor, but in everything else I am denied the privileges of a foreigner?”” he said in reference to Lebanon’s property laws which allows for foreign property ownership, however, Palestinians are specifically barred from purchasing land more than 3,000 square units, or buildings. 

The lack of a clear status for Palestinians in Lebanon was also cited in a published list of demands by a coalition of Palestinian groups in Lebanon. The statement, published on July 20, accused Lebanon of “increasing our suffering due the deprivation our most basic civil and social rights” by requiring work permits.  

The Lebanese government has not yet defined the legal status of the Palestinian refugee in Lebanon and as such is treated sometimes as a refugee and others as a stateless individual,” the statement said.      

Enforcing work permits has also raised complaints over tax benefits and entitlements from Palestinians. 

Palestinians with work permits pay a combined quarter of Lebanon’s social security fund, yet only are entitled to a third of the benefits disbursed to Lebanese citizens. As a result, many Palestinians avoided work permits to eschew the social security costs. Their argument against paying into the fund seems to have swayed the ministry of labor. In mid-July Abousleiman announced he would consider removing was the requirement for enrollment. Yet the demonstrations continued unabated. 

 

“The only thing that this changes is that they are still going to have the paperwork permits but [they said they’re] going to make it easier to get the work permits,” explained Jana Hassan, a Palestinian living in Rashidieh camp near Tyre in southern Lebanon. 

Hassan noted that upending the social security requirement was raised previously in recent weeks. “That’s what they said a month ago when they came out with the one month grace period, and never happened.”

Image of Lebanese currency stamped with the Palestinian flag, circulating on social media. (Photo: Twitter)

Image of Lebanese currency stamped with the Palestinian flag, circulating on social media. (Photo: Twitter)

Since protests began Palestinians have also been stamping Lebanese currency with Palestinian flags to demonstrate the wide impact Palestinian refugees have on the economy. The UN estimates 450,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon, of whom around half  live in one of the 12 refugee camps. Palestinians came to Lebanon in two waves, during the 1948 war and again in the 1967 war. They represent around 10 percent of the country’s total population. 

Palestinians are already banned from dozens of public sector jobs in Lebanon and they receive lower salaries than their Lebanese counterparts for the same work.

On social media, demonstrators circulated rumors that the tightening of labor laws came from a diktat of the Trump administration, articulated as amongst the ban’s objectives. Taking to social media with the hashtag  تجويعي_يخدم_الصفقة , or “#StarvingMeFortheDeal, Palestinians widely regard the practice as acquiescing to U.S. pressure to do-away with their right of return in American led neogtiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. 

Palestinian and Lebanese critics of the policy argue that the crackdown reflects an escalation of xenophobic and racist discourse against refugees by far right nationalist groups such as the Lebanese Forces (LF), headed by Samir Geagea, and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), led by Gibran Bassil. 

On Thursday, July 18, Geagea insisted that the protests were unrelated to the labor ministry’s clampdown on businesses and blamed the Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Gaza-based Palestinian group Hamas for stoking tensions. 

“Some of the Paletinian parties, such as Hamas, and other Lebanese parties, such as Hezbollah, have been misinterpreting the Labor Minister’s decisions to the [Palestinians] in a bid to gain their support in the conflict between Hamas and its Lebanese allies on one hand and the Palestinian authorities on the other,” Geagea said, the National News Agency reported.

Today al-Monitor reported Hamas raised $100,000 from Palestinians in Gaza to send to Palestinians in Lebanon to off-set costs from the labor row, a move that was controversial due to dire humanitarian circumstances in Gaza and the local government’s inability to cover public employee salaries. 

Some Lebanese officials have sided with Palestinian demonstrators. Lebanese Parliament member and head of the Popular Nasserite Organization Osama Saad said on July 16 that the measures were “an insult to the identity of the Arab Lebanon.”

On August 10, Lebanon’s cabinet met without Abousleiman to discuss repealing the work permit law for Palestinians. However, Abousleiman balked at the meeting in his absence and vowed to continue enforcement. 

“The discussion of stopping the procedures adopted by the Minister of Labor and placing the Council of Ministers’ hand on the file, can’t be carried out by a decision of the cabinet to stop the application of a law or prevent a minister from exercising his constitutional powers to implement the laws related to his ministry,” he said.

Julia Kassem

J. Kassem is a Beirut based freelance writer whose work focuses largely on the intersections between geopolitics and austerity. Her work has appeared in Counterpunch, Mintpressnews, TruthOut, and Al-Mayadeen, amongst other publications, local and international.

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