Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

Palestinians in Lebanon demand equal labour rights

A new commission to study Palestinian rights in Lebanon is not likely to change anything, protesters believe

Palestinians protested on Friday to demand the same labour rights as Lebanese citizens, nearly six weeks after the Labour Ministry started cracking down against illegal foreign workers. Few believe that a new government commission announced on Thursday “to study” their rights will produce tangible results.

Palestinian leaders said that demonstrations took place in the country’s 12 official camps set up by the United Nations after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to neighbouring countries.

“You must understand, minister, it will only get bigger, we aren’t afraid of going hungry,” shouted a man with a loudspeaker atop a truck in Lebanon’s biggest Palestinian camp near the Southern city of Saida, Ein El Helweh, in a video shared on WhatsApp.

“Enough!” responded hundreds of people marching behind him in unison. Black smoke rose above the camp as young men burned tyres painted with the colours of Palestinian flags. Citing security concerns, Lebanese authorities restrict media access to Ein el Helweh.

In the smaller camp of Burj Al Barajneh, south of the capital Beirut, the sit-in was more subdued and festive. “We want to live in dignity,” chanted a dozen children at the entrance of the camp after the Friday prayer, flying Palestinian flags to the sound of drums.

After a one-month grace period, the Labour Ministry started cracking down on illegally employed foreign workers on July 9, including against Palestinians, forcing shop owners to close or employers to fire their employees.

Palestinians in Lebanon are not allowed to buy land and they are barred from 39 professions, mostly high-skilled jobs in sectors with organised unions such as healthcare and engineering.

Labour law stipulates that employers must provide them with a work permit that costs several hundred dollars a year, but previous Labour ministers ignored the law to avoid clashing with the Palestinian community.

Inconsistencies in Lebanese labour law also discourages employers from obtaining work permits for Palestinian staff, because they would have to pay an additional 23.5 per cent for the national social security fund, despite a Palestinian employee only benefiting from 8 per cent of these contributions. Other foreigners also pay for social security but do not benefit from it.

While the labour minister says that he is merely implementing a long-ignored law, Palestinians argue that it is unfair.

Dib Tout, centre, head of the local popular committee, at the protest at the Palestinian Burj Al Barajneh camp on August 23, 2019 in Lebanon. Sunniva Rose / The National
Dib Tout, centre, head of the local popular committee, at the protest at the Palestinian Burj Al Barajneh camp on August 23, 2019 in Lebanon. Sunniva Rose / The National

“The Lebanese state can ask for work permits from foreigners, but not from us. We were born here,” Deeb Atout told The National, struggling to be heard over the 2013 hit by Arab Idol winner Mohammad Assaf, “My blood is Palestinian”.

Born in Burj Al Barajneh 70 years ago, Mr Atout heads the camp’s popular committee, which functions like a local municipality. Palestinian camps in Lebanon are self-governed since a 1969 agreement. The Lebanese army mans checkpoints at their entrance but stays out of them.

On Thursday, after weeks of demonstrations in Palestinian camps, the government appeared to make a concession by announcing that it will set up a committee to study the “Palestinian file”. Several ministers, including the Labour Minister, Camille Bou Sleiman, will be part of it.

He will “absolutely” continue inspections, he told The National, adding “the rule of law has won”.

Despite pressure from several Lebanese political parties over the past weeks to turn a blind eye to illegally employed Palestinian workers, as his predecessors have done, Mr Bou Sleiman refused to back down.

“My objective is not to make life harder for Palestinians. Applying the law will make life easier for them by protecting them and taking them out of the informal economy,” he said.

Mr Bou Sleiman recognised that Palestinians were “worried, and that must be addressed,” and said he was open to changing current labour laws.

“I think it might be possible [that the committee] will maybe consider changing the labour law that requires a work permit, and maybe the implementing decrees too,” he said.

Activists say they do not think another government committee is likely to produce change and that they will continue demonstrating until it backs down completely.

The prime minister already leads a Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) set up in 2005, pointed out activist Samer Manaa, who heads the Human Development Centre for the Defence of Palestinian’s rights. “They just want to push the whole matter back to the beginning,” he said.

“We have been here for 71 years. They keep “studying”, procrastinating and delaying. One week the minister is not there, one week they want to study more, and you don’t know what will happen on the third week,” complained 49-year-old activist and kindergarten teacher Fadia Lobani, from Burj Al Barajneh. “They are pushing us aside and not treating us as human beings.”

Living conditions in Palestinian camps in Lebanon are dire and have the highest poverty rate compared to camps in neighbouring countries such as in pre-war Syria and Jordan. Streets are narrow and electricity cables hang low. According to Mrs Lobani, over the past five years 100 people have died from electrocution in Burj Al Barajneh.

Over the years, she has witnessed overcrowding increase and job opportunities go down. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war have moved into the camp, where rent is cheap.

Many dream of emigrating to Europe or America, though obtaining asylum is difficult. “If the Lebanese state cannot support us, they should admit it and send us to European countries,” said Ahmad Youssef Al Madad, a Palestinian taxi driver in Saida.

However, some Palestinian leaders expressed cautious optimism about the new committee.

“We consider this to be a step forward,” said Abd Al Rahman Abou Salah, head of the popular committee in Saida. “We hope that it will have a positive position and work with Palestinian refugees in the way they deserve, and cancel or freeze this decision,” he told The National, referring to the Labour Ministry insisting on Palestinian workers obtaining work permits.

Lebanon has a tense relationship with Palestinian refugees. They are still widely blamed for igniting the 15-year Lebanese civil war in 1975, seven years before the Palestine Liberation Organisation was forced out of the country.

“I’m sorry to say that after all this time, the Lebanese still look at Palestinians only in a security way, not in a humanitarian way,” said Mr Manaa.

The size of Lebanon’s Palestinian population is unclear. The LPDC estimated their number at 174,000 in 2017, whereas the UN agency for Palestinian refugees says there as many as 450,000.

In effect, Palestinians are treated as long-term residents, Palestinian-Lebanese activist Manal Kortam told The National. “We do not have to renew our IDs, we do not need a residency permit, our passports are issued by the Ministry of Interior every five years, and European countries don’t give us asylum because they say we have a country of residence. That’s why the labour law should recognise this and not demand a work permit,” she said.

To obtain concessions from the government, activists should increase awareness among the Lebanese through meetings and lectures with official bodies such as municipalities and unions in parallel to intensifying demonstrations, argued Mr Manaa. “We need to find a way to show the Lebanese the pain of the Palestinian people.”

But the chance of getting the message across is low.

Most of the time, only Palestinians and a handful of sympathetic journalists witness their demonstrations, because they are not allowed to gather outside their camps. Activists are fearful to break the law.

“Did you see how many [Lebanese] soldiers are hanging around?” asked one of the demonstrators in Burj Al Barajneh. Another activist said that several local Facebook pages encouraging demonstrations were closed recently by State Security.

But Mrs Kortam argued that in order to avoid continuing the status-quo, Palestinians should be more active and “continue and expand their movement to occupy the Lebanese public space. It is only then that they can be seen and that their demands will be considered and given priority.”

Updated: August 25, 2019 01:45 PM

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