Lebanese protest in solidarity with Palestinian workers amid 'racist' crackdown on foreign labour

Lebanese protest in solidarity with Palestinian workers amid 'racist' crackdown on foreign labour
Dozens of Lebanese activists with some of their Palestinian counterparts stood across the ministry in solidarity with ongoing Palestinian protests against labour inspections. reports Kareem Chehayeb.
4 min read
30 July, 2019
Palestinians in Lebanon are barred from legally working some 20 jobs [Kareem Chehayeb]
"Workers of Lebanon – Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian – unite!" read one banner as dozens of activists gathered outside the Ministry of Labour's building in Beirut's southern suburb to protest a government crackdown on Palestinian workers in the country.

Riot police surrounded the entrance of the ministry, while soldiers from the Lebanese Army stood threateningly over a bridge across the street – directly overlooking the protesters.

"As a Lebanese who is concerned with finding a job fresh out of university, I find it repulsive, the Lebanese government…is putting all the effort to criminalise work for other people," protester Karim Safieddine told The New Arab while holding a placard.

"The [current] law is not a feasible law, nor is it practical or fair."

Safieddine, like many young Lebanese adults, is struggling to find regular work as the country continues to go through high unemployment and economic hardship. However, he does not think foreign labour inspections are in the interest of protecting him and other Lebanese.

"We need to look for creative solutions to have a more productive economy in Lebanon – this is where more job opportunities will be created," he said.

Read also: Palestinians resist Lebanon's suppressive labour measures

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have gone into a third week of unprecedented protests across the country's 12 refugee camps, all which suffer from overcrowding, poverty, and poor infrastructure.

According to UNRWA, Palestinians in Lebanon are barred from legally working in some 20 jobs and have additional barriers to accessing other labour rights as foreign nationals due to their lack of a state. There are about 174,422 Palestinian refugees currently in Lebanon. 

Throughout the past month, Ministry of Labour inspectors have been closing down and fining business that hire informal foreign labour, coupled with a media campaign encouraging businesses to hire Lebanese nationals only.

A statement from the ministry in mid-July said that the inspections do not target any nationality in Palestinians, and allege that the practice is not discriminatory because the business owners impacted are Lebanese. Several days later, Minister of Labour Camille Abousleiman told local media that he has eased certain barriers for Palestinian workers, which he said "was going to do this all along."

"This is happening under the title of combating illegal foreign labour – what an ugly title," protester Hachem Adnan said while reading the protesters’ statement to the press. "This does not take into consideration the unique situation Palestinian refugees are in, who have been living for over 70 years."

The protesters' statement added that based on this situation, to call it illegal foreign labour is "categorically racist", and that it violates Lebanon's obligations under international law.         

"We are simply implementing the law," a Ministry of Labour spokesperson told The New Arab. "Non-Lebanese need work permits. Simple."

However, Palestinian refugees, many of whom stateless or whose status is not always clear in Lebanon, cannot obtain work permits because most of them do not have the prerequisite residence permit.

The labour minister has had several meetings in light of the recent labour inspections and protests that ensued, including with Prime Minister Saad Hariri. He also met with the head of Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in Lebanon, who resigned following the meeting. A photo of him kissing Abousleiman’s head was shared virally across media platforms.

Sarah Kaddoura, a Palestinian protester, told The New Arab the situation is "critical" but that the movement "brings hope". 

"I'm very grateful for the initiative done by our Lebanese comrades, but I do wish there was a bigger turnout," she said. "If there is no support outside the camps then I feel the movement inside will slow down."

Kaddoura feels that this has been expected for a long time. "We've been around for 71 years and had lack of accessibilities in terms of labour [opportunities], not being able to own proper, and no civil or economic rights," she explained.

"Obstructing their livelihoods was the tipping point."

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese writer and musician based in Beirut.

Follow him on Twitter: @chehayebk