Strategic Assessment (115): The Measures of the Lebanese Ministry of Labor and the Palestinian Protest Movement: Backgrounds and Possible Scenarios.
The plan of the Lebanese Ministry of Labor to crack down on illegal foreign workers in Lebanon, which included Palestinian companies and employers, has caused a massive and spontaneous protest movement by Palestinian refugees, who feel that they are treated unjustly and are oppressed by the Lebanese government policies over the past 70 years.
The plan of the Labor Ministry did not take into consideration the amendments of the Labor Law no. 128 and 129, and what was approved by all Lebanese parties and forces in coordination with the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC). In addition, and above all, Palestinian presence in Lebanon is neither a burden nor a competitive factor to the Lebanese, rather the Lebanese economy can benefit from the Palestinians’ expertise and potentials.
Due to the different approaches, there are three possible scenarios: First: “All loses”: By the Ministry’s insistence on “enforcing the law” and the continuation of popular movements demanding all rights, where mutual escalation would continue. Second: Taking advantage of the attention the popular movement is getting to urgently and completely rectify the situation of Palestinian refugees. Third: To reach a road map for an approach that would do justice to the Palestinian refugees and do not embarrass the ministry, and at the same time would correspond to and build on the LPDC outcomes.
It is clear that the third scenario is the most realistic. It requires from the LPDC, the Lebanese and Palestinian forces, and the ministry to take the initiative, effectively collaborate, while having accurate statistics, and seek to legalize and regulate the Palestinian presence in Lebanon until their return to Palestine.
In June 2019, the Minister of Labor Kamil Abu Sleiman has put a plan to crack down on illegal foreign workers in Lebanon. However, matters took a political turn, as every issue in Lebanon does, whether it was economic, environmental or social, and the plan was implemented on Palestinian workers and employers.
Consequently, Palestinians moved and there was a spontaneous popular protest movement, rejecting the measures taken by the Minister of Labor. It was self-organized and has reflected the growing tension among the Palestinians as a result of their living and humanitarian conditions in Lebanon that they have been suffering for the past seventy years, a three-generation span. In this context, we note the following:
• The Palestinian popular movements were spontaneous, where it was noted that the Palestinian public were faster than their leaderships, and some reluctant Palestinian forces were forced to catch up with those popular movements. Despite being full of pride and inclusive of all Palestinians, the movements were civilized and showed high discipline. The Palestinian street has often made higher demands than their leadership, for this street does not take into account the requirements of political diplomacy, and does not read and analyze events as politicians do.
• It is strange that a plan was put to “combat” illegal foreign workers in Lebanon, without having clear, accurate, or even rough statistics that determine the numbers of Palestinian workers or those of other nationalities, their distribution over labor sectors and the needs of the labor market.
• Regardless of intentions and the pro-Palestine viewpoints, some observers question the timing of these measures, which came in the midst of US pressure to eliminate UNRWA, settling the refugee issue and enforcing the so-called “deal of the century.” Nevertheless, Minister Abu Sleiman completely denied this, and stressed that they are not related.
Clearly, Lebanon now faces sensitive internal political and economic pressing issues; which have politically reflected internal understandings on a new election law. This law allowed the main political forces to share power, and try to overcome the political obstruction that plagued the country, as was the case when electing a president which paralyzed the country for two years. However, political complexities still reflected on forming the government and the adoption of its budget, where some sought the “popular consent” in different environmental, economic and political issues. This led to the paralysis of the government during a sensitive economic phase that Lebanon is witnessing.
In addition to the aggravated political situation in Lebanon, it is witnessing one of the most serious economic phases, undermining its global credit rating and monetary stability. The situation is as follows:
• Lebanon’s public debt amounted to around $87 billion, it is the world’s third-most indebted nation in terms of the debt-to-GDP ratio. Debt servicing constituted 35% of the 2019 budget that was approved by the Lebanese parliament.
• One billion dollars are estimated to be transferred monthly from Lebanon, a sum that threatens Lebanon’s monetary stability. In this context, some say that this is due to the foreign labor in Lebanon, which is not the case for the Palestinian workers, who spend what they earn in Lebanon, since they have been refugees there for more than seventy years. They rather receive money from abroad estimated at hundreds of million of dollars, which is considered one of the factors of development that support the Lebanese economy.
• The deficit of the 2018 budget has hit 11.5% of the GDP, and the public protests over budget cuts have increased, for they affect different Lebanese sectors, including military retirees and others.
The Lebanese Approach:
Lebanon has regulated the work of foreigners by issuing the Law-decree no. 17561, on 18/9/1964. This decree includes three rules of work in Lebanon: Obtaining a work permit, the priority is to Lebanese nationals and the principle of reciprocity. It states also that the Minister of Labor shall designate, each year, in the course of the month of December, the jobs and professions, which the Ministry considers as essentially reserved to Lebanese nationals (they are between 50-70 professions).
In this context, the consecutive ministers of labor in previous governments noticed that there is injustice in applying these standards verbatim, and realized the impossibility of applying them to Palestinian refugees, for their refuge is forced, which give them legal rights in accordance with international standards and regulations.
However, the Lebanese law did not abide by such approach, it treated the Palestinians sometimes as foreign workers and sometimes as refugees. Consequently, some Labor ministers tried to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian refugees by decisions that eased some of the pressure on the Palestinian worker, as what the Labor Minister did in 2005, when he eased some of the restrictions placed on some professions.
Furthermore, former labor ministers Butrus Harb and Muhammad Kabbarah decided to exempt the Palestinian worker from some of the requirements for obtaining work permits and made an exception for the Palestinians, who were born in Lebanon and were officially registered in the registries of the Ministry of Interior, to practice professions prohibited to foreigners.
In August 2010, the Lebanese parliament approved amendments to Article 59 of the Labour Law and Article 9 of the Social Security Law that specifically addressed the employment of Palestinian refugees, and approved two new laws 128 and 129.
Based on these amendments, the reciprocity of treatment policy was revoked, and the fees to obtain a work permit by Palestinian refugees were waived. Concerning social security, the amendments allowed the Palestinian worker who has a work permit to subscribe to the National Social Security Fund, but he/she has to pay 23.5% of his fees, while benefitting from end-of-service compensation (8%) and work-related injuries, without benefitting from other compensations (healthcare and maternity), which the fund usually provide to the Lebanese.
Now, back to the plan of the Labor Minister Abu Sleiman announced in June 2019, observers note a number of practical problems, including:
• The plan did not distinguish between the foreign worker and the Palestinian worker, and did not take into consideration that according to the aforementioned amendments, the principle of reciprocity does not apply to Palestinian workers.
• The Minister of Labor—and before the plan to “combat illegal foreign workers” —did not designate the jobs and professions, which the Ministry considers as essentially reserved to Lebanese nationals, as is usually done.
• The plan did not take into consideration the document signed by the main Lebanese parties and forces, including the Lebanese Forces party of which the minister of labor is a member. The document recommended issuing organizational decrees concerning the amended labor laws 128 and 129. This document is a good basis for an approach that would organize Palestinian labor in Lebanon and do them justice, in a way that would serve well Lebanon and its economy.
The Palestinian Approach:
• The suffering of the Palestinians for 70 years has led to the “massive hemorrhage” of the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon. Many have emigrated, especially university graduates and competent people in search their livelihood, thus the number of Palestinians in Lebanon has shrunk. According to the figures of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) there are about 530 thousand refugees in Lebanon, however the real number does not exceed half of that (220 thousand), while noting that the Lebanese survey of 2017 has estimated their number at 175 thousand.
• Observers note that the timing of these measures would serve—regardless of intentions—the interests of the “deal of the century”; at a time when the Lebanese and the Palestinians stand united against it.
• Palestinian forces view that the assertion that the Palestinian is a foreigner who needs a work permit may contribute to the denial of his refugee status, and is inconsistent with his definition as a refugee who forcibly came to Lebanon. This is what Israel and the US seek in order to pass the “deal of the century” or to end the role of UNRWA in the future.
• The Palestinian labor force in Lebanon is estimated at 90 thousand, while in reality is estimated at 51 thousand, where the unemployment rate is estimated at 56%. And 41% of the real workforce is actually self-employed (mostly in the refugee camps and Palestinian communities), while 37.8% are employees. UNRWA’s employees are estimated at three thousand. Therefore, the Palestinian active labor force doesn’t exceed actually 10–20 thousand, working in organizations, institutions and companies in Lebanon, which, according to official statistics, employ 275–200 thousand workers (excluding Palestinian and Syrian workers), including 155 thousand domestic workers.
• The Palestinian people in Lebanon are not an economic burden on the Lebanese government, for its budget is not spent on them and most of their affairs in the refugee camps fall under UNRWA’s mandate, including education, health and even infrastructure. Hence, the Palestinian labor force enters the Lebanese labor market at no financial cost to Lebanon and its official institutions.
• Palestinian forces see that imposing work permits on Palestinians is unrealistic and inapplicable to a wide range of Palestinian workers. It will actually increase unemployment among the Palestinian population, which is already high, and it will make the Palestinian worker either illegal or unemployed.
• The Palestinian popular protest movements cannot be considered a revolt against the decision of Minister Abu Sleiman as much as a revolt against the injustice and deprivation suffered by the Palestinians in Lebanon for many long years. They have been deprived of dozens of jobs and prevented from owning. It is a revolt against the isolation and tightening of the refugee camps. It does not target the minister in person or his party, nor does it intend to break the law and regulations. That’s why they were peaceful civilized protests, in which the approach was that of human rights and ethics, and that the Palestinians have the right to live in dignity and to be treated humanely.
• The integration of the Palestinian worker into the Lebanese labor market contributes significantly to overcoming social, economic, security and political problems. It prevents the exploitation of the Palestinian refugees in a way that does not serve the Lebanese interests and the stability of Lebanon.
• Relieving the Palestinian worker contributes to the obstruction of the deal of the century, and any other peace settlements that may seek to resettle the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
Reading Between the Two Approaches:
The Lebanese Minister of Labor believes that applying the Labor Law will benefit the state treasury and will open job opportunities for Lebanese workers. However, we notice from the above figures that the Palestinian workers who may compete with the Lebanese are mostly daily wage earners. According to LPDC Chairman Hasan Mneimneh, “In the case of the Palestinian refugee, it seems that obtaining an employment contract is difficult and nearly impossible to achieve. It is known that small companies in Lebanon try to evade the registration of their employees in the social security [fund], so that they wouldn’t pay fees and other financial charges.” Here comes the question: How would daily wage earners, who are working in the fields of real estate development, agriculture or other services, oblige theIR employer with an employment contract imposed by the Ministry of Labor to obtain a work permit?
The measures that the Labor Minister Abu Suleiman wants to implement do not contribute to solving Lebanon’s economic problems, for the following considerations:
• Imposing on THE Palestinians in Lebanon to get a work permit would not increase the revenues of the Lebanese state treasury, since Palestinians are exempted from paying work permit fees.
• These measures would form a discouraging environment to Palestinian capitalists and investors, leading more assets to be moved out of Lebanon, and these cannot be estimated for different considerations, nevertheless, such a move will certainly have a negative impact on the Lebanese economy.
• These discriminatory measures against the Palestinians in Lebanon would increase their economic suffering, especially since 62% of them suffer from food insecurity, and those are mostly daily wage earners; i.e. the target segment of the Ministry’s decisions. This may lead to an unstable social environment with negative ramifications.
• In 2016, a study on the labor force in commercial and service establishments was conducted jointly by the National Employment Office (NEO) and the Société Générale Bank, under the auspices of the then Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi. It discussed the impact of foreign labor on the labor market, however, it was limited to studying Syrian labor without addressing the effects of the Palestinian labor. What’s noted is that the study has identified the requirements for the advancement of the labor market and reduction of unemployment, and among those were raising efficiency and developing professional educational structure, and these may be available in many Palestinian workers; graduates of specialized institutes and universities. It may contribute to filling a gap in the labor market which, according to the study, needs specialized cadres.
• Is the organization of Palestinian labor force what is required today? Or is it preventing them from work and harassing them?
• Can the Palestinian labor force be used to develop the Lebanese economic structure to overcome the economic crisis? And how?
• Is the Palestinian resident in Lebanon for more than seventy years one of the reasons for the deterioration of the economic situation in Lebanon?
• To what extent does the issuance of work permits to Palestinians would contribute to solving the unemployment crisis in Lebanon?
• Is increasing the unemployment rate among Palestinians in the interest of Lebanon economically, security wise and politically?
The Possible Scenarios
First Scenario: “All loses”: The Ministry would insist on “enforcing the law” and applying it, while overriding the Laws 128 and 129 of 2010, and the outcomes of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee: The Ministry of Labor would continue its crack down on Palestinian workers, while the Palestinians would continue their protest movements demanding their economic and human rights. Thus leading to mutual tension that may affect negatively the stability of Lebanon and the Palestinian people. It may lead also to:
• Continuing the exhaustion of the political environment, the security forces and the Lebanese army, in light of the continuous Palestinian protest movements rejecting the decision of the ministry.
• The continuation of tension and media mobilization that took on racist and sectarian forms, which would harm Palestinian-Lebanese coexistence and civil peace. Some political forces may even try to use such situations as a “populist” opportunity to achieve political and partisan calculations. It is a scene where negative ramifications would lead to a further dismantling of the Lebanese social contract itself.
Second Scenario: Using the current situation as an “opportunity” to completely rectify the conditions of Palestinian labor in Lebanon: All issues relating to Palestinian workers would be put on the dialogue table, and the Ministry of Labor—in coordination with LPDC and the Palestinian and Lebanese forces—would submit a proposal to organize them so that all Palestinians can work without exceptions, and help them to join syndicates. However, the obstacles of such an “optimistic” scenario are still present, among them is the tense atmosphere, the ability of some forces to disrupt, and that are some playing the zero-sum game (either win or lose).
Third Scenario: Reaching a middle ground: Resolving the current crisis by an approach that does justice to Palestinian refugees, does not embarrass the Ministry of Labor, and is in conformity with what was approved by the LPDC by applying come of its recommendations. This can be done by issuing a government decree excluding Palestinians from the obligation to obtain work permits, and considering the IDs, issued by the General Directorate of Political Affairs and Refugees (DPAR), as work permits.
2. The need to issue organizational decrees concerning the amended labor laws 128 and 129, that would facilitate the work of the Palestinian refugees, as soon as the government meets.
3. Implementing annulling the “principle of reciprocity,” by cancelling the work permit demand, for the Palestinians are Lebanese residents and not foreigners who must get a work permit.
4. Activating the roles of LPDC and civil society organizations to reach practical and effective approaches, and considering the document signed by the main Lebanese parties and forces a basis for an expanded Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue.
5. The need to conduct a real census, in order to know the size of the Palestinian labor force and its distribution over different production sectors.
6. The need to conduct an economic study on the Palestinian presence in Lebanon and its contribution to the Lebanese economy cycle.
7. The need to activate NEO’s role, in order to be provided with the actual conditions of the labor market, and the needs of various production sectors.
8. The need to control the street/public and avoid using racist and sectarian language in the political and popular discourse.
9. The need to put this issue within its human rights and humanitarian scope, away from political populism and internal competitive “”auctions.”
10. Uniting the Palestinian forces on a unified vision of work and labor laws, and presenting real practical solutions.
11. Legitimizing the labor rights of Palestinian refugees and legalizing them in the Lebanese parliament.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Wael Sa‘ad for authoring this strategic assessment.