Palestinians resist Lebanon's suppressive labour measures

Palestinians resist Lebanon's suppressive labour measures
Palestinian refugees have been taking to the streets against a crackdown by Lebanese authorities on undocumented workers in the country as part of a campaign led by the labour ministry.
5 min read
19 July, 2019
Dozens of Palestinian demonstrated on July 16 against the Labour Ministry's campaign [Getty]

"We want to live, we want to live", one of the many chants heard amid a protest in Beirut that took place on July 16. 

Palestinian refugees have been taking to the streets since Tuesday against a crackdown by Lebanese authorities on undocumented workers in the country as part of a campaign led by the labour ministry.

Called for by the Palestinian Right to Work Coalition Campaign, the demonstrations are in response to the strict measures implemented by Lebanon's labour ministry which have been inspecting local companies and closing down those who have yet to acquire the needed work permits for their unlicensed foreign workers. 

Recent applications of these measures include but are not restricted to: a refugee losing his job as a truck driver for not having a permit, as well as a company receiving a warning for employing more Palestinians than Lebanese.

Earlier last week, a ceramic shop owned by a Palestinian resident of the Koura district was shut down by the authorities despite having completed all the necessary papers.

"Don't be silent about your rights!" reads a poster held by a Palestinian man in the Beirut protest.

Historically, refugees have feared violent and restrictive consequences of explicit political activity, so recent actions ranging from such posters to people marking the Lebanese banknote with "Palestine 1948" are an expression of firm power and the refusal to withstand decades-long socioeconomic discrimination and suppression.

The ministry is deliberately targeting Palestinians, who have been residing in Lebanon for decades

Widely considered a threat to the country's sectarian balance and a competition to Lebanese labourers, Palestinians and Syrians are scapegoated by right-wing parties such the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces for the country's economic woes.

Both groups have a history of chauvinistic statements and attacks against Palestinians, particularly during the Lebanese civil war.

Despite these realities on the ground, Minister of Labour and member of the Lebanese Forces Kamil Abousleiman insisted that "no decision was issued by the ministry of labour against the Palestinians specifically or anyone else".

Nevertheless, due to the extensive pressure and resistance from Palestinian youth circles and economic interest groups, recent statements by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri stressed that "this decision concerning Palestinians workers will be retracted."

On the other hand, Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri requested that the issue be discussed within the Council of Ministers.

The Palestinian response and a military crackdown  

The labour measures were followed by several statements from Palestinian officials, political parties, diaspora groups and businessmen. The last two threatened to withdraw tourist plans, remittances and bank deposits.

In a statement issued by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group emphasised that it "rejects all measures that lead to closing down businesses owned by Palestinians or suppressing Palestinian workers".

On the other hand, negotiations proceeded between Fatah official Aazam Al-Ahmad and Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces.

Besides such formal protests, what is most striking about Palestinian resistance to these brutal enforcements is that of the local youth and students.

Under the title "Palestinian workers and business owners in Lebanon aren't illegal immigrants", a demonstration planned earlier this week in Beirut attracted angry Palestinian youth from all over Lebanon, most of whom are either studying, working or both.

The organisers stressed on the right to return to Palestine, the right to dignified work in Lebanon and coexistence with their Lebanese counterparts.

Although the protesters planned a nonviolent march towards the Parliament, the demonstration was surrounded by security forces and the military warned against any movement towards the central capital.

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However, instead of centralising the demonstrations in one area, each camp in Beirut and the South had its own local protests, shutdowns and strikes. One example of the latter is the bus strike in the Ain El-Helwe Saida camp that has led to large economic losses for many institutions and businesses in the South of Lebanon.

Despite the fact that Palestinians are generally considered to have "autonomy" within these camps as opposed to their restricted external activity, the army has intervened in many instances in the past few days to crackdown on protests from within the camp entrances.

Although large parts of the general public initially sympathised with the Palestinians' economic, interventions by the army and the possibility for conflicts within the camps have alarmed many Lebanese.  

A history of institutionalised discrimination 

Although most Lebanon's Palestinian residents were either born or have been living in the country since 1967 or 1948, they still lack many socioeconomic rights.

Legally, Palestinian refugees must obtain a permit work, according to decree no. 1756 issued in the year 1964. However, acquiring these papers involves a long and tedious bureaucratic process that often deliberately hinders Palestinians' access to legal work.

For instance, the law states that a work permit can only be issued when linked to pre-existing work contracts.

According to an ILO report, only around two percent of Palestinians residing in Lebanon had issued an official work permit by 2012.

In addition, Palestinian youth and student movements lately emerging from camps throughout all of Lebanon have further emphasised other aspects of discrimination, such as being barred from liberal professions and more than 30 syndicated professions.

As a result, they are left with jobs that are considered low-wage by nature.

The rise of an alternative movement?

"Words of love and flirtations about al-Quds, the capital of Palestine, don't have meaning. They are not the bare minimum of moral duty for fascist and chauvinistic politicians who are pursuing policies that keep Palestinians in Lebanon in poverty," says Sarah Kaddoura, a Palestinian residing in Lebanon. 

In the past year, Palestinians have found themselves stuck between two hardened situations: growing socio-economic discrimination in many Arab states and sweeping concessions made on their behalf in projects such as the "Deal of the Century".  

As a result, a new generation of Palestinians are attempting to mobilise the youth towards a more encompassing opposition to institutionalised discrimination and unjust resolutions. 

Finally, scepticism is on the rise concerning the current Palestinian leadership and a dominant discourse that reduces the cause to cultural ends. 

In the words of Nidal Khalaf, a Palestinian student in Lebanon, "I find the latest event as further proof of the lack of any proper Palestinian leadership in terms of protecting our people, planning a self-dependent Palestinian economy, and defending our status and our political rights to return and continue our struggle to liberation."

Karim Safieddine is a political writer and student living in Lebanon