Two steps back for Palestinians in Lebanon

14 September 2010

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Palestinian refugees in Lebanon find the passing of a new labor law does little to improve their ability to work legally in the country. (Matthew Cassel)


Everyone here works without a permit,” said Mohammed Khalife. “Being legal and having a work permit is the strange thing, not the other way around.”

Khalife, a 26-year-old Palestinian refugee who lives in the Lebanese capital of Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp and works outside the camp in construction, explained that the majority of his peers also work illegally outside the camp, as getting the work permit is near impossible.

“This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world,” said a Palestinian doctor who lives and works in the Baddawi camp near Tripoli, and wished to remain anonymous. “All Palestinian parents want to see their children as engineers or doctors, and why not?” The problem is Lebanon’s employment laws. “I can only work inside the camp,” he said. “For the past sixty years, the majority of Palestinians who are working outside of the camps are doing so without permits, whether it be in agriculture, car mechanics, teaching, engineering, anything.”

August 2010 legislation

The Lebanese government passed a new law last month that ostensibly improves the work situation for Palestinians. Politicians and media outlets around the world lauded 17 August 2010 as historic for Palestinian rights in Lebanon. Article 4 in the new legislation was widely considered groundbreaking, as it stated that the law’s beneficiaries — Palestinian refugees registered with the Lebanese authorities and the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) — “will be given work permits from the Labor Ministry to be used exclusively to work in the private sector.” Furthermore, the law states that “beneficiaries of this law are exempt from paying fees for their work permits, paying taxes, and conditions of reciprocity normally exacted on foreign workers.”

Yet many who have advocated respecting Palestinians labor rights quickly pointed out that in reality the new law changes little.

“The problem actually lies in Article 4,” said Sari Hanafi, professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the author and editor of several books regarding the Palestinian diaspora. “It is written clearly that the Palestinians have a right to work, but only according to the current regulations of the Ministry of Labor. This means the Minister of Labor will continue to dictate which professions they can work in and which ones they cannot.”

He added that there are still some thirty professions they are banned from.

Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and the member of Parliament who introduced the initial version of the legislation in June, called the change “a very small step on a very long road.”

“It is a partial achievement of a whole struggle to give the Palestinians full dignity in life, property, living conditions,” he told this reporter, confirming that the syndicated professions, such as medicine and engineering, are still prohibited.

The law, therefore, does not help the doctor from Baddawi.

“Within the Palestinian General Union of Doctors, there are around 350 people registered, ranging from specialists, to general practitioners, to pharmacists — these professionals can be useful in Lebanon,” the doctor said, adding that Lebanon is short of nurses and other professionals in fields where Palestinians have the potential to fill the gap, if they were able to join syndicates.

“In Tripoli alone, the majority of the hospitals are full of Palestinian nurses,” he said. “They are there because there are not enough Lebanese nationals to fill the positions, but yet they have to work without permits because they cannot be part of the syndicates.”

Lost in the law

The status of Palestinian refugees has never been officially defined by law in Lebanon, leaving them in a state of legal limbo. As a result, they were categorized as “foreigners” (someone not of Lebanese origin), within the labor law, and subsequently within the labor market. Articles in both the Labor Law and the Social Security Law stipulated that for a foreigner to work in Lebanon and gain access to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), he or she must fulfill the principle of reciprocity, meaning that a foreigner’s right to obtain a work permit and be employed in Lebanon is dependent on Lebanese nationals being able to do the same in that foreigner’s country. As Palestinians have no official state to offer reciprocal rights, the law prevented them from legal employment in any of the 72 professional categories the Lebanese government uses to subdivide the country’s labor market — which effectively cover all but the most menial labor.

In addition, a large number of professions such as engineering, medicine, dentistry, veterinary sciences, chartered accounting and nutrition are governed by syndicates in Lebanon that issue licenses to members, and the laws stipulates that foreigners must have a license to practice that particular profession in their own country before they can practice in Lebanon. Again, being officially stateless, Palestinians were automatically barred from these professions in Lebanon, even if they were born and raised in this country.

In 2005, then Minister of Labor Trad Hamadeh issued a ministerial decision opening up non-syndicated professions to Palestinians born on Lebanese territory who were registered with the Ministry of Interior.

While this was initially seen as a breakthrough for Palestinian refugee labor rights, the reality was that the ministry itself issued exceptions to the decree for many professional categories, effectively limiting the newly available jobs to clerical work and unskilled labor.

The August 2010 legislation for some was seen less as a move toward granting Palestinian refugees labor rights and more as shifting the 2005 decree from a ministerial decision to legislation.

“Since 2005, the number of work permits [for Palestinians] has not been increasing, so the new law has now replicated a decree that has failed for the last five years,” said Hanafi.

“This law is a tiny, tiny step forward, but also a major step back in terms of the Palestinian-Lebanese relationship,” he said. “It shows the Palestinians that we can fool the world and make fun of you and issue a law that has no practical impact on your everyday life — I’m not exaggerating, this law has no impact on the life of the Palestinians; on the contrary it adds a new bureaucratic layer to the issue.”

Opposing voices

Christian political parties from both the government and opposition camps resisted Jumblatt’s bill in its original form — which included much more profound changes to the labor laws — and were the major factor behind it being watered down to the version that eventually came to a vote. They argued that giving rights to Palestinians could be the first step toward tawteen (naturalization). The opposition’s Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, said last month that the Lebanese needed to work against the “US-Israeli conspiracy” to naturalize the Palestinians.

On the government’s side, Amin Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb party, said the legislation proposed by Jumblatt to give Palestinians civil rights “will lead directly to their naturalization.” Even the Maronite Bishops Council stated that addressing these humanitarian issues would lead to the permanent resettlement of Palestinians in Lebanon.

“Our main position is that we are not at all against giving basic and human rights to Palestinians, but as a Lebanese state we cannot afford to pay for that, both economically and politically,” said Albert Kostanian, a key member in the political bureau of the Kataeb party. “Economically it would be like relieving the international community of responsibility, especially with regards to going back to Palestine.”

He added: “We feel that this new law has opened 90 percent of the labor market for the Palestinians, and the areas in which they will strongly compete with the Lebanese are still closed, so we feel that [the new law] is quite clear, and that it should not be extended anymore.”

Hanafi called these “unfounded arguments,” noting that if worries about naturalization were the actual concern, then the new laws could be made conditional on the Palestinians eventual return to Palestine.

“First, it is a class issue — economic exploitation — the Lebanese are happy for Palestinians to work for cheap labor,” he said. “Secondly, it is a moral issue; this is a racist society, and there are right-wing parties who have a racist agenda against the Palestinians.”

The National Social Security Fund

One point of contention that was rectified within the new legislation was that of the NSSF. According to a report published earlier this year by the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, “Palestinian refugees who obtain work permits are required to make payments to the Lebanese social security system. They are, however, not entitled to receive social security services, as this would require reciprocity according to the Lebanese law.” Coupled with the fact that “many employers in Lebanon are resistant to make additional social security payments for Palestinian refugees and generally prefer to employ Palestinians illegally,” both employer and employee had little incentive to follow the legal channels, according to the report.

Article 5 in the new legislation addressed the issue of social benefits, calling for a separate account within the NSSF purely for Palestinian employees, yet specifically stating: “Those included in the provisions of this law do not benefit from contributions to the sickness, maternity and family allowance funds.”

Kostanian said it was necessary to separate the Lebanese fund from the Palestinian one: “The first draft referred to familial aid, but this we felt was already being taken care of by UNRWA, and should therefore stay with UNRWA.”

Employed but illegal

While Palestinians are technically prevented from working in syndicated professions, many are in fact working in these jobs within Lebanese companies, but when doing so illegally, they have little in the way of job security, health benefits, paid sick leave, end of service benefits or paid holidays.

According to a study presented earlier this year by Sawsan Abdulrahim, assistant professor in the department of health promotion and community health at AUB, exclusionary policies have not been successful in barring Palestinians from participating in the Lebanese workforce, and that generally, Palestinians who are employed receive lower wage returns on their education and occupation in comparison to the Lebanese. Lebanese men with a secondary education receive on average a wage of 3,670 LL ($2.45) per hour, while Palestinian men with the same education receive an average of 3,030 LL ($2.02) per hour.

A 2006 study by FAFO, a Norwegian non-governmental organization, found that only 11 percent of Palestinian workers had written contracts, and the average hourly wage was 2,600 LL ($1.73). It found that 44 percent of Palestinians working in Lebanon made less than $2,400 a year, compared to six percent of Lebanese. Unemployment among Palestinian refugees, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) data present in 2007, is around 10 percent.

This number can be misleading, however, as it counts only those who are actively looking for a job but are unable to find one.

Once “discouraged workers” are taken into account — meaning people who want a job but are not actively seeking out work because they do not think they would find any — the Palestinian refugee unemployment rate jumps to 25 percent.

Nearly twice as many women are unemployed as men and 43 percent of all the unemployed were under 25 years old.

Those Palestinians that are working often have to resort to tweaking the truth to get their jobs; FAFO found that Palestinian professionals, for example, often practice under the term “judicial consultant” within a Lebanese law firm, or Lebanese doctors sign medicine prescriptions written by Palestinian doctors.

“They are living in this country, and they don’t really have a choice,” said Nawal al-Ali, coordinator for the Najdeh Association’s Right to Work campaign. “If the Palestinians are not working, how are they going to live? As thieves? Or terrorists? Is this what Lebanon wants?”

According to Salvatore Lombardo, director of UNRWA affairs, labor rights for the Palestinians are just as beneficial for the Lebanese as they are for the refugees: “Palestinian refugees contribute to the Lebanese economy through active engagement in the labor force and economic consumption,” he said. “In numbers, they also represent a relatively small group occupying sectors of the economy where they compete with other foreigners or with a minimum Lebanese workforce.”

He added that the difference between Palestinians and other foreign workers is that Palestinians spend their income inside the country, and remittances they receive from abroad are also spent in Lebanon.

Hanafi also pointed out that should Palestinian professionals be allowed to work legally, their impact would be minimal, given the fact that they are already participating in the labor market — changing the labor law would mostly legalize them in positions they already occupy.

Educated for what?

Abdel Hafiz Ghozlan, 19, born and raised in the Shatila refugee camp, has just finished high school and is applying to university. He says he has already faced discrimination due to his nationality: having applied for a kitchen job with a large international fast food chain in Beirut, the manager rejected his application, telling him that the position was reserved for “Lebanese nationals only.”

“I want a degree because I hope that by the time I graduate, the law will have changed and I’ll be able to get a job,” said Ghozlan, making him one of the determined few to continue with his education. FAFO’s 2006 study found that 74 percent of the Palestinian labor force in Lebanon has less than a secondary education, and only 5.5 percent have a university education, in comparison to twenty percent of Lebanese. Only one in ten Palestinians aged ten years and older have completed secondary education; just one in twenty have completed anything higher.

“Few children dream of becoming unskilled laborers,” said UNRWA’s Lombardo. “Sadly, Palestinian refugees who hold university degrees often find themselves doing just that because they have been denied the right to work … When parents and children see this unjust reality, it crushes all belief in education for them and leads students to learn skilled labor at an early age.”

Indeed, FAFO’s report noted that forty percent of Palestinian students who drop out of school early do so due to “de-motivation.”

“This lack of motivation stems from the daily struggle of camp life,” said Lombardo. “Dire poverty leads to child labor and early marriage. Those who remain in school face overcrowded classrooms, small shelters with big families and endless questions as to prospects for their future.”

Wissam al-Hassan, an 18-year-old butcher from Shatila who left school after the third grade, said those who do pursue higher education often end up as the examples of its futility. “They study, they graduate from school and university, and then what? They sit and do nothing,” he said. “Knowing that we can work here with our rights would push people to stay in school.”

What happens tomorrow?

With the passing of the new legislation, the Kataeb’s Kostanian says the Palestinians now have to fulfill their end of the bargain.

“We feel that the next step is the Palestinian duty towards Lebanon,” he said, specifically referring to the issue of arms within the camps. Improved Palestinian living standards, said Kostanian, go hand-in-hand with the security of the Lebanese state.

“We need to regulate security within the camps and really enforce the Lebanese laws by allowing the army to deploy peacefully in the camps,” he said. “This will be better for the Palestinians as well.”

Jumblatt, on the other hand, says the next move involves shuffling further along the road of Palestinian civil rights and tackling the issue of ownership and land.

“The next step will be the right to property; these people, even those who are refugees on our land, have a right to have a minimum level of belonging,” he said. “We allow foreigners unlimited access of land to buy under the pretext of enhancing investment; why can’t we give Palestinians the same right to inherit a house, for example?”

For AUB’s Hanafi, the issues lay within the attitudes of the Lebanese society, as currently the Palestinians face an uphill struggle against discrimination. Rectifying the situation involves an increased amount of pressure on political parties across the board, coupled with campaigns backed by civil society movements.

“If things remain the way they are, it will make the Palestinian community hostile towards the host country and its legal framework,” warned Hanafi. “This is not good. The Lebanese need to see how to integrate and not discriminate.” Many young Palestinians, however, see little cause for hope.

“Living in these conditions shatters your dreams,” said Khalife, the construction worker from Shatila. “There is nothing to look forward to, and no one has the opportunity to leave the camp. This country kills you.”

Nour Samaha is a journalist currently based in Beirut, she has worked in the Middle East for the last five years.

This essay was originally published by The Executive magazine and is republished with the author’s permission.