Lebanese labour regulations spark outcry from refugees

The continued scapegoating of Palestinian and Syrian refugees for Lebanon’s troubles will only make gestures like Abu Suleiman’s contentious and counterproductive.
Saturday 27/07/2019
Workers dismantle concrete huts at a makeshift Syrian refugee camp in the Lebanese town of Arsal, July 4. (Reuters)
Workers dismantle concrete huts at a makeshift Syrian refugee camp in the Lebanese town of Arsal, July 4. (Reuters)

Car makers often issue disclaimers for their products, such as “objects in (the) mirror are closer than they appear,” to warn people that perception and reality are two different things.

A similar reminder could have been useful from the Lebanese Labour Ministry, whose new regulations have drawn unforeseen backlash from the country’s Palestinian refugee community.

Lebanese Labour Minister Camille Abu Suleiman, a member of the Lebanese Forces’ cabinet bloc, introduced a campaign called “Only Your Countrymen Can Help You Stimulate Your Business” that provided business owners with a 1-month grace period to correct and register any undocumented foreign labourers they may have on staff.

Abu Suleiman’s actions — or at least his intentions — were clear: to implement the country’s existing regulations governing the sector and address popular concerns that Syrian refugees were flooding the labour market.

On July 10, the Ministry of Labour, assisted by local and municipal law enforcement, oversaw a nationwide crackdown on labour violations, leading to many illegal foreign-owned businesses being closed and to large fines being levied at those found to have undocumented workers on their payroll.

Abu Suleiman’s plan was progressing well until it faced an unexpected challenge: Palestinian refugees.

In principle, Abu Suleiman’s campaign was geared at regulating the employment of Syrian refugees, not Palestinians, but because of the new regulations, Palestinian refugees, many of whom face dire economic conditions, are concerned that their livelihoods could be at stake.

While Lebanon’s new law does not recognise Palestinian refugees as foreign workers per se, it does require them to obtain a licence from the Ministry of Labour through which they can access social security provisions.

The problem for Palestinian refugees is that they are permitted to work only in certain sectors, where they are often employed, either by design or convenience, without such bureaucratic procedures. Now, Palestinian refugees suspect the state is hitting them with unneeded regulations to drive them out of the labour market.

Abu Suleiman’s strict implementation of the law drew a particularly harsh reaction from Palestinians living in camps, many of whom took to the streets to protest what they view as unjust new measures. Some protesters clashed with the Lebanese Army.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Abu Suleiman, in response, assured Palestinian refugees that the new measures were implemented, not to harm their economic prospects, but to protect them.

However, because of a climate of xenophobia driven largely by Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, their reply fell largely on deaf ears. Instead, many refugees say the new labour regulations are a coordinated effort to further persecute them.

By playing on the public’s prejudices against Palestinian and Syrian refugees to muster political support, Bassil has spurred a toxic environment for Lebanon’s immigrants, who are understandably sceptical of the government writ large.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its representatives in Lebanon were quick to address the unrest. While they voiced concern about the effects of the new measures, they nevertheless assured that all Palestinian refugees are to fully abide by Lebanese laws and regulations.

While the PLO took the moral high ground, radical populist movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas used the incident to rally protesters, showing how much the PLO and its archaic institutions have lost touch with their constituency. Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s reaction showed just how easily — and dangerously — they can weaponise inhabitants of Lebanon’s refugee camps to incapacitate the state.

While Abu Suleiman’s drive to see Lebanon’s labour code fully implemented is commendable and should not be hindered by the protests, he should take steps to ensure refugees receive proper legal protection. Indeed, all legal professionals with a stellar record like Abu Suleiman should fully commit to protecting all of Lebanon’s refugees, both Palestinians and Syrians, by updating the country’s archaic legislation and granting them full civil rights.

If such a brave gesture is not possible, Abu Suleiman and people like him should not shy away from confronting the rampant xenophobia of Bassil and his fellow travellers, even if it is an unpopular position in the Christian community.

The continued scapegoating of Palestinian and Syrian refugees for Lebanon’s troubles will only make gestures like Abu Suleiman’s contentious and counterproductive.

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