BEIRUT/SIDON: Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman said he would announce measures simplifying work permit applications for Palestinians Thursday evening, as Palestinian refugee camps witnessed unrest and protests for the third consecutive day.
Palestinians across the country continued to protest Wednesday against crackdowns on non-Lebanese workers by the Labor Ministry that they say unfairly target Palestinians, who are legally considered foreign workers.
Abousleiman told The Daily Star Wednesday that one aspect of his plan would exempt Palestinians from enrollment in social security, a current stipulation for obtaining a work permit. This is a major dissuasive factor for many Palestinians, who receive less from the National Social Security Fund than they contribute to it.
Palestinians are only entitled to benefit from the End-of-Service Indemnity Fund, one of the NSSF’s three funds that also include the Sickness and Maternity Allowance Fund and Family Allowance Fund, former Labor Minister Charbel Nahas explained.
“The cost in terms of contributions [to the NSSF] is 23.5 percent [of the worker’s salary]. The share that goes into the End-of-Service Indemnity Fund is 8 percent” of what they pay to the NSSF, Nahas said.
“Therefore both the employer and the [Palestinian] employee have absolutely no interest” in enrolling in social security, he added.
In 2012, the International Labor Organization found that only 2 percent of Palestinian workers had obtained permits.
Abousleiman said he had planned to give Palestinians “the benefit of all favorable legislation,” including removing required enrollment in the NSSF. “I was going to do this all along. But it was never brought to the table,” he said.
But Nahas, who served as minister from 2009-11, said he believed Abousleiman was unlikely to succeed in obligating Palestinians to obtain work permits, adding that an unexpected “land mine has exploded” beneath the current minister.
Nahas said he had issued a circular in 2011 to relax requirements for Palestinians to obtain work permits, though it only briefly went into effect.
“The circular said Palestinians should only need a form of identification and the promise of work - not even a work contract,” he said.
He added that previous labor ministers tended to turn a blind eye to the issue of Palestinians’ work permits.
Hoda Samra Souaiby, a spokesperson for the U.N. agency for Palestine refugees, told The Daily Star “the misunderstanding has happened because Palestinians are not regular foreigners. This was not taken into account in the Labor Ministry’s decision” to crack down on foreign labor.
According to UNRWA estimates, Lebanon hosts around 270,000 Palestinian refugees, many of whom have lived in the country for over two generations.
Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday warned against any escalation in the protests. “We want to solve these issues with discussions and negotiations and we refuse escalation by any party,” Abbas said, according to official Palestinian news agency WAFA.
In a meeting with the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Abbas said he would dispatch committee member Azzam al-Ahmad to Lebanon to follow up on the issue, emphasizing the “the fraternal relations with our brothers in Lebanon.”
Last week, Labor Ministry inspectors closed down dozens of shops run by, or employing, non-Lebanese employees and fined dozens more. The order came after the end of a one-month grace period set by Abousleiman for employers to ensure non-Lebanese workers had the correct documentation.
For the third day running, protestors blocked entrances to Palestinian camps Wednesday, burning tires and laying down obstacles, even preventing the entry of food products and fresh produce.
In the meantime, residents have been living largely on canned food.
“We have helped out by providing tuna and sardine sandwiches,” Umm Mahmoud al-Ali said as she handed out restoratives to hungry protesters in Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp.
Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians refused to go to work across south Lebanon.
In Sidon, Palestinian leaders met and called on UNRWA, which runs the refugee camps, to begin collecting garbage and reopen clinics in Ain al-Hilweh starting Thursday.
The general strike began Tuesday, closing UNRWA’s clinics and causing trash to pile up in the streets. Foul smells have been exacerbated by the recent hot weather. Sidon’s Palestinian leaders determined to continue striking and protesting until Abousleiman “retracts his decision.”
Sidon MP Bahia Hariri congratulated Abousleiman for his work toward finding a “mechanism to quickly and positively solve the issue that takes into account the particularity of our Palestinian brothers,” according to the state-run National News Agency.
Hariri denied comments attributed to her in which she allegedly called on Palestinians to engage in civil disobedience if Abousleiman did not “back down from his position.”
Al Reaaya Association, a Sidon-based NGO, called on Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri to intervene and encourage the government to “follow the footsteps of previous governments” by considering the “position of our Palestinian brothers.”
Abousleiman also spoke over the phone with his Palestinian counterpart Mamoun Abu Shahla to discuss potential solutions to the tensions.
Abousleiman said in a statement that he “understands the suffering of the Palestinian people” and that he was attempting to facilitate Palestinians’ acquisition of work permits, in accordance with Lebanese labor law.
The Lebanese faction of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions sent a letter to Abousleiman, saying Palestinians’ employment in Lebanon was a necessity for their livelihoods, and called for amendments to the labor law.
“We look forward to your outstanding role in creating a Palestinian working class,” the letter read.
Industry Minister Wael Abu Faour said his party continued to support the Palestinian people and called on the Labor Ministry to review its policies toward Palestinian workers.