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Lebanon wins economically if Palestinians are granted the right to work “What’s in it for my Confession - and how about me?”
Sunday, 04 July 2010 22:43
by Franklin Lamb, Ph.D., Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp

“These are humanitarian, social and ethical duties, and the Lebanese state must assume the responsibility of providing them to our Palestinian brothers and sisters. Lebanon will not dodge these duties, which must be crystal-clear, and not be subject to any misinterpretation. The international community has to bear also the responsibility that our Palestinian guests will have the right to go back to their homeland: Palestine, with Jerusalem as their capital.”
- Prime Minister Saad Hariri during the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) meeting at the Grand Serail, June 29, 2010

Handicapping the Parliamentary Vote to grant Civil Rights to Palestinian Refugees

Votes needed to Pass: 65 MP votes in favor out of 128
As of July 2, 2010:
Firmly in favor: 13
Firmly opposed: 16
Leaning towards voting in favor: 41
Leaning towards voting against: 58

Ed: Currently the vote to grant the right to work for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is too close to call as the most serious debate ever in Lebanon on this subject builds momentum. If last week’s refugee camps hero was the Druze MP Walid Jumblatt (please see Part V of this series) this week’s much admired za’im is the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister, Saad Hariri. The political sands in Parliament and the Cabinet continue to shift as regional powers weigh in and current vote pledges may not be reliable.

A main argument that continues to be made by Members of Parliament who oppose granting civil rights to Lebanon’s Palestinians is that allowing them “privileges” (Ed: quotes mine) would lead to their naturalization and settlement (Tawtin). By this is meant that the refugees might get too comfortable in Lebanon and not want to return to Palestine. It’s a false but potent shibboleth as many academic and NGO studies and surveys have shown. Unfortunately it continues to resonate given Lebanon’s current political atmosphere, particularly in the more right wing Christian villages allied with the Lebanese Forces, the Kataab (Lebanese Social Democratic Party), Phalange movement and the National Liberal Party and their political allies including the Maronite Patriarchy and the American Embassy.

Discussing the claimed fear of Naturalization and its connection with employment of Palestinians, American University of Beirut Professor Sari Hanafi, a key organizer of the June 27, 2010 historic civil rights march here in Lebanon commented during an interview with Now Lebanon on 6/28/10:

“Poverty rates inside refugee camps (due to not being allowed to work) are estimated at about 40 percent of the population, in comparison with the 7 percent or 8 percent observed in the poorest Lebanese areas such as Akkar (Ed: North Lebanon near Tripoli). According to the Palestinian Najdeh Foundation, unemployment rates are at about 60 percent of the total population and only 7 percent of working Palestinians have fixed contracts, 90 percent of which are with UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency). The rest are essentially employed on the black market. These figures account for the exploitation of Palestinians across the board. I do not think that this has anything to do with the fear of naturalization of Palestinians in Lebanon. Palestinians had originally two sources of employment: the PLO and UNRWA, and today only the latter remains. Unfortunately, even UNRWA is now increasingly using Palestinians on a temporary contract basis.” (Ed: UNRWA recently announced that it has a 113 million dollar deficit. It is being forced to further curtail the shrinking health and education services in the camps).

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Being allowed to work is a right not a privilege

The granting of the right to work must be decoupled from permanent settlement in Lebanon in the now active public debate. Unfortunately those in Parliament opposed to granting civil rights to Palestinians have increased the volume and shrillness of their claims that civil rights means naturalization and citizenship and will affect the domestic sectarian balance. Both claims are false, and Lebanon, as a signatoryof all the major human rights treaties, and bound to implement others based on principles of customary international law, it has an obligation to respect the basic rights of all persons legally residing on its territory. This is purely a question of respect for human rights, ensuring that its refugees can live in dignity without discrimination. Granting Palestinian refugees these elementary rights is distinct from Lebanon’s obligations vis-à-vis its own citizens. The granting of civil rights to Palestine refugees neither entitles them to citizenship, nor obliges the Lebanese state to grant citizenship and the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon do not and have never sought Lebanese citizenship.

Since mid-June 2010, another argument against granting the right to work has been surfacing and Phalange Party leader, former President Amin Gemayel and his allies and even some of his fellow Maronites who compete with him for support in the dwindling Christian community, are issuing warnings. They have been complaining as Gemayal told a Phalange Party gathering last week: “Lebanon’s economy cannot sustain granting these “privileges” (Ed: Quotes mine) to Palestinians. It will damage Lebanon’s economy. Lebanon does not have enough money. Instead, the international community must take over this file and find a solution. Anyhow the problem requires more study before we act hastily.”

Opponents argue that allowing refugees to work will take jobs from Lebanese workers

Following the PLO departure from Lebanon in August of 1982,Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been barred by law from 77 job categories. Five years ago (February of 2005) pro-Hezbollah Labor Minister Trad Hamadeh issued a decree that officially reduced the job restrictions imposed on Palestinian employment down to 25 jobs. However, this decision remains stillborn due to impossible to meet requirements of work permits (only 2% of Palestinians in Lebanon have ever been able to secure one-sometimes through bribery) reciprocity (which cannot be met since Lebanon does not recognize a state called Palestine) and other government imposed barriers designed specifically to keep Palestinians out of jobs. Since 2005, the number of work permits delivered to Palestinians (261 in 2009) has only varied, as Professor Hanifi has documented, by plus or minus 10 percent every year, proving that there has been no real change in terms of Palestinian employment.

Among those in Parliament and the public favoring granting Palestinian refugees the right to work and the right to purchase a home, the old bromides about Naturalization and Palestinian refugees taking Lebanese jobs are not convincing. Even some of Lebanon’s intensely sectarian media is beginning to discount them. The documented history of Palestinian refugee fueled economic growth in countries, such as Syria and Jordan, who have met their international obligations to Palestinian refugees, make clear that Lebanon has much to gain from meeting her obligations and allowing Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees their internationally guaranteed rights. In these countries, Palestinians enjoy full citizenship rights, in the French sense of the word. Without being granted nationality, they have the essential social, legal and political rights of any other citizen, including freedom of movement, the right to work and to own a home. This is what Lebanon’s Palestinians are seeking and have a fundamental right to be granted without further delay.

As Salvatore Lombardo, the director of UNRWA told key Lebanese leaders on 6/30/10 during a Conference with the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC): “Let’s not forget that this will have a huge impact on Lebanon’s economy and stability. Lebanon will gain, it will have a workforce that will invest here.”

Abdallah Abdallah, the Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon, has joined virtually all Palestinians in Lebanon in denying any intent to obtain naturalization or political rights. “All what the Palestinians want is the right to work like any other foreign nationals.”

Palestinian refugees are not in Lebanon as tourists

Palestinians were terrorized by Zionist forces and gangs while being forced from their homeland and are so far unable to return. Consequently Palestinians have no choice but to live and stay in Lebanon, which distinguishes them from economic migrants and other foreigners. Yet, Lebanese law considers Palestine refugees as foreigners, disregarding the protection needs of long-term forced displaced persons guaranteed by international law.

As much as the well-being of the Palestinian community is dependent on the well-being of the Lebanese economy as a whole, the Lebanese economy itself is dependent on the work, capabilities and human resources of this skilful community. An increased participation of Palestinian refugees in the Lebanese economy, both in terms of quantity and quality, would therefore greatly benefit the economic life of the entire country.

Unlike other groups of refugees and foreigners, due both the long history of their presence in the country and the impossibility of return, Palestinians have no other “economic affiliation” but to the Lebanese economy. Palestinian refugees also contribute to Lebanon’s high seasonal agricultural labor demands, as well as to the great need for construction workers. It is common to see Palestinians, sometimes risking arrest, among those congregated under Beirut overpasses seeking shade from the intense sun while waiting and hoping for day labor construction work when can bring their families $15-18 for a ten hour shift.

Their exclusion from being able to work legally is not only a violation of internationally guaranteed rights, it is bad economic policy for Lebanon.

What Lebanon’s economy now enjoys from Palestinians will increase

The Washington DC and Beirut based Palestine Civil Rights Campaign and those in Lebanon and internationally who are working to secure civil rights for Palestinian refugees advocate a rights-based approach based on international legal norms and universal moral and religious teachings. While these arguments are sufficient, it is also worth emphasizing the benefits that the Lebanese economy will reap from access to the Palestinian refugee labor market.

At the time of their exodus, only four years after Lebanon’s independence from the French in 1943, Palestinian assets brought into Lebanon were estimated at four times the value of the Lebanese economy. Ever since, periods of economic expansion have greatly benefited from Palestinian capital being invested in the country.

As it is now, Palestinian refugees contribute massively to the Lebanese economy, based on their numbers through active engagement in the black market or informal-illegal labor force and by daily economic consumption, as well as millions of dollars of financial contributions by International Organizations such as UN specialized agencies plus donor countries and NGOs, who are assisting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Various studies have concluded that Palestinians account for 10% of all consumption in Lebanon, with food, healthcare and rent being the main expenditures. More than 90% of Palestinian refugees spend all their income in Lebanon contributing directly to the Lebanese economy. Allowing them to work will, it is estimated by the International Labor Organization, double this figure and dramatically spur growth.

Current financial benefits to the Lebanon economy from her Palestinian guests include the following:

  • The reception of Western Union type cash remittances by approximately 50% of the Palestinian households in the Camps from relatives living aboard. Foreign workers on the other hand send their earning out of Lebanon to their countries of origin in order to support their families.
  • Supplying labor of varying skills for seasonal agricultural demands as well as for major reconstruction projects. This brings considerable profits for Lebanese companies, employers, and employment agencies and the workers’ wages of roughly $ 18 per day are often spent immediately for food, healthcare and rent. Palestinian refugees often work in small businesses, generally considered as a foundation of economic growth in any economy and they contribute to “invigorating” the areas surrounding their camps by creating low-cost markets for low-income and other marginalized communities in Lebanon.

As a large percentage of Lebanese continue to leave the country for study and employment, this creates serious gaps in Lebanon’s economy as well as a steady demand for skilled and unskilled labor in the Lebanese labor market. Palestinians refugees are willing and able to fill this chasm.

At the same time, Palestinians represent no deductions from the Lebanon’s welfare system, as is sometimes claimed, and in fact they unjustly benefit the Lebanese economy by paying social security without receiving any services by law. Some Palestinians unable to work in Lebanon manage to leave and find employment elsewhere, depriving the Lebanese economy of a young, qualified and motivated workforce that could greatly contribute to its socio-economic development.

Yet the economic benefits of full and legal participation by Palestinian refugees in the Lebanese labor market have been willfully underestimated through political resistance to granting them basic rights.

Granting Palestinians the right to work will not take Lebanese jobs

In stark contrast to the non-Palestinian work force, Palestinians represent a numerically modest fraction and pose no threat to job opportunities for Lebanese employees. Indeed, granting the right to work which includes improving the work conditions and safeguards for the Palestinians currently working in the ‘informal sector’ (Ed: illegal employment or black market rendering them potentially liable for exploitation, dismissal, fines and/or jail) will also benefit Lebanese who are forced to compete against below minimum wages earners who are non-Lebanese .

Palestinian workers constitute only 3-5% of the total work force in Lebanon which is estimated at around 1.1 Million. The size of the foreign labor force, excluding Palestinians, is conservatively estimated at 600.000. Estimates for the number of Syrian laborers vary between 200’000 to one million more.

The Palestinian labor force is between 55.000 and 85.000 (based on estimates of the resident Palestinian refugee population of between 225,000 and 330,000 Palestinian refugees, of which 69% are of working age and of these approximately 37% are employed at least 5 hours per week.

Most of the Palestinians who find work do so in the 12 refugee camps or more than three dozen gatherings. Palestinians work mainly in services, instruction, industry, transport, and agriculture jobs not generally the ones most Lebanese are employed in or would accept to enter. For example, the construction sector employs 19% of all Palestinian workers, and only 0.8% of all Lebanese. Manufacturing employs 13% of the Palestinian workforce and only 8.5% of the Lebanese. Agriculture employs 11% of the Palestinian workers, and less than 2% of Lebanese.

In Lebanon, agricultural workers are excluded from the application of the Labor Law. Construction and agriculture, two of the main sectors in which Palestinians work, employ mostly daily paid workers. Legislation granting the right to work to Palestinians will not significantly affect this group of employees.

Despite the fact that Lebanon’s severe restrictive policies were meant to exclude Palestinians from the labor market, they have had little effect on keeping the refugees completely idle. Most Palestinian households report at least one person per household works. The fact that Palestinians are already working, albeit informally and sometimes illegally, indicates that legalizing their status and providing them with the full right to work would not cause a loss of jobs available for Lebanese citizens but only the regularization of the current situation for the protection of both.

Palestinians provide a very positive but underutilized contribution to the Lebanese economy.

A win-win scenario-additional benefits for Lebanon

While the unemployment rate among Palestinians is around 15%, a far larger percentage of around 35% of the Palestinian workforce (60% of the men and 12% of the women) are underutilized workers. Apart from the unemployed, these consist of discouraged persons (wanting to work but believing there is none), visibly under-employed (time related, i.e. working less than 35 hrs a week) or invisibly under-employed (low-productivity jobs and/or over- qualification)

By granting the Right to Work which includes improving the work conditions and safeguards for the Palestinians currently working in the ‘informal sector’ (Ed: illegal employment rendering them potentially liable for dismissal, fines and/or jail) it will also benefit Lebanese who are forced to compete against below minimum wages earners who are non-Lebanese workers. Lebanese employers often prefer to engage foreign workers saving money by paying wages lower than legal minimum wage while avoiding registration in social security system. Such low cost Palestinians risk undermining Lebanese wage earners with similar qualifications

The most sought after jobs go to Lebanese

As noted, the educational level of Palestinian refugees remains relatively low and those without higher education do not compete with Lebanese with advanced schooling. Only 6% among Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon have completed secondary school for a current non enrollment or dropout rate of more than 90% from higher education. 70% have only a primary school education or less. 13% drop out of school at the elementary level. This education gap, plus widespread discrimination, keeps Palestinian refugees from competing with Lebanese for many jobs.

As Lebanon’s Parliament deliberates this summer on how to met its international legal and moral obligations while benefiting its economy, at a minimum two severe impediments must be removed for either or both to be realized. These are the work permit and the application of the principle of reciprocity.

The work permit

In order to obtain a work permit, the employee must have a work contract. This poses a major challenge for Palestinians, especially for several occupations associated with a high turnover of employers. A work permit can be cancelled at any time in favor of a Lebanese worker. Another issue is the validity of the permit, lasting only two years. Because of these and numerous other administrative restrictions, only around 2% of all Palestinian workers hold work permits. As noted above, Lebanon granted 136,000 foreigners working permits in 2009, and only 261 of them are Palestinian. Only 11% of Palestine refugee workers have a written contract. Most do not have paid vacation or sick leave. Occupational injuries are not covered by UNRWA health services. Of the Palestinian male workers who stop working, 70% do so for health reasons.

The principle of reciprocity cannot be applied to Palestinian refugees who are stateless

Every country has a legitimate reason to protect the interests of its nationals. This can be done through conditioning the provision of rights to foreigners on the basis of a mutual enjoyment of these rights by its citizens in the country of origin of the foreigner. However, applying this principle of reciprocity to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who are stateless, means effectively denying them the right to work. This impossibility to comply is clearly against the logic and purpose of the legislation. Lebanon, which is a State party to the Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights must ensure the enumerated rights to all individuals within its territorial jurisdiction including non-nationals. Discrimination on the basis of a person being stateless is prohibited.

The right to work is essential for realizing other human rights and forms an inseparable and inherent part of human dignity. Every individual has the right to be able to work, allowing one to live in dignity. The right to work contributes at the same time to the survival of the individual and to that of her/his family, Moreover, insofar as work is freely chosen or accepted, it enhances the families development and recognition within the community. Granting the right to work to Palestinian refugees is part of Lebanon’s obligations under international law and its enactment will benefit Lebanon’s economy.

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and volunteers with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign. He is reachable at: fplamb@palestinecivilrightscampaign.org.
Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon

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