SIDON/BEIRUT: Lebanon’s labor minister stressed Tuesday that the recent crackdown on illegal foreign workers has no political motive but rather a legal one, adding that he could not stop the implementation of the law.
“I explained to the delegation the measures taken and explained to them the facilitation that is being offered by the Labor Ministry and the law pertaining to our Palestinian brothers, especially their exemption from paying a work permit fee, in addition to other exemptions,” Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman said after meeting a delegation from the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions.
Palestinian protesters Tuesday continued burning tires and blocking roads at the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in an attempt to keep pressure on Lebanese authorities to stop the crackdown. This is the second week of protests by Palestinian refugees against the crackdown on undocumented foreign workers, which they say unfairly targets them.
Abousleiman noted that Tuesday’s discussions were constructive and that the ministry inspectors, who were inspecting potential businesses for violations, were treating Palestinian employees with the same respect as Lebanese citizens. He added that only two violations out of the 750 issued as of Tuesday were against Palestinians.
Palestinians dispute this number. Tarek Akkawi, the head of Lebanese-Palestinian Business Forum, told The Daily Star that two businesses in Koura had been temporarily closed by inspectors for employing Palestinians without work permits, but that many more had received violation notices.
Following his meeting Tuesday, Abousleiman said that the Palestinian delegation was requesting Palestinians’ full exemption from work permits, which he said, “would require an amendment to the labor law.”
He ruled out the possibility of such an amendment, saying the law was “valid and cannot be suspended.”
He was also asked to halt to the implementation of the recent crackdown against the Palestinians. “I assured them that the ministry doesn’t have the authority to stop implementing a law for a specific category of people.”
Abousleiman claimed that he didn’t know what the recent fears and backlash were over, but said he was “ready to do anything, within the scope of the law, that will make this easier.”
Monday evening, a delegation from the Joint Palestinian Labor Authority had called for protests to continue, but said roads leading to and from the camps should remain open and demonstrators should refrain from burning tires.
Protesters in Ain al-Hilweh, however, failed to heed this instruction and were seen burning tires and blocking entrances to the camp with iron barriers. As a concession, however, they allowed pedestrians, sick people and emergency services to enter the camp.
The protests have prevented fresh foodstuffs from entering the camp, as residents continue to live off canned goods.
One protester, Abu Musa, told The Daily Star “we won’t reopen the road until the [Labor Ministry’s] decision is canceled.”
“We don’t like burning tires ... but we want to feel like humans and be granted our civil rights,” he added.
Protests in other Palestinian refugee camps in south Lebanon seemed to have calmed down Tuesday, with protesters refraining from blocking entrances and burning tires.
Palestinian refugees and officials have stressed that while Palestinians living in Lebanon are considered foreigners, they have a special status as many of them have been here for generations and cannot return to their homeland.
Last week, Abousleiman attempted to appease protesters by making it easier for Palestinians to obtain a work permit, for example by exempting them from obligatory enrollment in the National Social Security Fund. Tuesday, he said pensions for Palestinian refugees in the NSSF have reached a value of around LL14 billion ($9.3 million).
Despite the ongoing protests by Palestinians saying that the recent ministry action was unfairly targeting them, the minister has insisted that he is doing no more than simply implementing the labor law.
“For maybe 50 or 60 years the law hasn’t been implemented ... now the process of doing so has begun,” Abousleiman said.