TYRE/BEIRUT: Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman signaled Monday that he was willing to compromise on work permits for Palestinian refugees, as protesters geared up to shut down Palestinian camps in south Lebanon.
Palestinian refugees blocked the entrances to three refugee camps in south Lebanon Monday in reaction to the Labor Ministry’s crackdown on unregistered foreign workers.
Residents of Tyre’s Rashidieh camp woke up to a black cloud from burning tires, preventing entry and exit to the camp, which holds over 30,000 refugees.
Later in the day, Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh and Mieh Mieh camps saw similar scenes. All entrances to Ain al-Hilweh were blocked, including one situated next to an Army checkpoint. Children could be seen throwing items of furniture into burning masses of tires and planting Palestinian flags in the middle of the road.
The unrest is set to continue. After a meeting Monday afternoon, Palestinian leaders in Sidon released a statement calling for a general strike in all of Sidon’s camps and the continued blocking of streets to prevent the entry of foodstuffs.
A monthlong grace period for Lebanese employers to sort out the legality of their foreign employees ended a week ago. Since then the Labor Ministry has closed down dozens of noncompliant shops and fined many more if they were found to employ foreign workers without work permits.
So far a total of 438 violations have been reported, Abousleiman told The Daily Star in a phone call, but only two cases involved Palestinians. One of the Palestinian workers traveled from Tripoli to “sit down” with the Labor Ministry and fix his legal status, Abousleiman said.
Abousleiman met with Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee Chairman Hasan Mneimneh and Palestinian Ambassador Ashraf Dabbour Monday afternoon in an attempt to cool the atmosphere.
The three discussed ways of “simplifying the process” of obtaining a work permit for Palestinians.
No hard agreement was reached. Abousleiman argued that no agreement was needed because “the law is clear ... I think [Mneimneh and Dabbour] understand that - it was a welcome gesture.”
Mneimneh reiterated to The Daily Star that no practical decision had resulted from the meeting, but that he agreed “the atmosphere was good” and that Abousleiman was looking for the best solution.
Abousleiman has repeatedly stressed that the crackdown seeks to implement an existing law and not discriminate against any nationality.
Registered refugees and Palestinians benefit from positive discrimination, the ministry claimed in a statement released Monday, since they are exempt from paying for their work permits. But there is a fee that the employer must pay.
In 2010, Parliament approved granting Palestinian refugees free work permits and end-of-service benefits through the National Social Security Fund, according to the International Labor Organization, which estimates that only 2 percent of Palestinian workers have acquired work permits.
However, Abousleiman suggested that the ministry could be even more “flexible” with the aim of further smoothing the way for Palestinians obtaining work permits.
The ministry is considering exempting Palestinians from providing certain documents in an attempt to encourage them to sort out their legal status, he said, without providing further details.
Mneimneh said that he and Dabbour were demanding a six-month period in which Palestinians could fix their legal status. Within this period he called for a greater circulation of information on how Palestinians could obtain work permits.
However, Abousleiman said that neither Dabbour nor Mneimneh had made this demand clear to him during the meeting.
The minister also met with Industry Minister Wael Abu Faour Monday to discuss the impact of the law’s application on manufacturers.
In televised comments, Abu Faour welcomed Abousleiman’s campaign, saying it was being carried out with the nation in mind rather than from “racist intentions, as some have suggested.”