By Franklin Lamb – Beirut
‘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.’ — Lebanon’s Premier Saad Hariri during the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) meeting at the Grand Serail, June 29, 2010
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, this week’s zaim is Hariri. The political sands in Parliament and the Cabinet continue to shift as regional powers weigh in and vote pledges may not be reliable. Handicapping the parliamentary vote to grant civil rights to Palestinian refugees, the MP votes needed to pass is 65 out of 128.
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” 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 within Lebanon’s Christian community.
Being Allowed to Work is Right Not 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 signatory of 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 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 gemayel told a Phalange Party gathering last week:
“Lebanon’s economy cannot sustain granting these privileges 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.”
As Salvatore Lombardo, the director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (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.”
UNRWA recently announced it has a $113 million deficit. It is being forced to further curtail the shrinking health and education services in the camps.
Abdullah Abdullah, 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.”
What Lebanon’s Economy 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 percent of all consumption in Lebanon, with food, healthcare and rent being the main expenditures.
More than 90 percent 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:
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. 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 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 so-called “informal sector” (i.e., 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 percent 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 from 200,000 to one million. The Palestinian labor force is between 55,000 and 85,000.
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 percent of all Palestinian workers, and only 0.8 percent of all Lebanese. Manufacturing employs 13 percent of the Palestinian workforce and only 8.5 percent of the Lebanese. Agriculture employs 11 percent of the Palestinian workers, and less than 2 percent 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.
The Work Permit
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 percent 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 percent 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 percent do so for health reasons.
Principle of Reciprocity Doesn’t Apply to Refugees
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. But 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 director of Americans Concerned for Middle East Peace, Beirut-Washington DC, Board Member of The Sabra Shatila Foundation, and a volunteer with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign, Lebanon. He is the author of “The Price We Pay: A Quarter-Century of Israel’s Use of American Weapons Against Civilians in Lebanon” and is doing research in Lebanon for his next book. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. (For information and updates on the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign in Lebanon, and to sign the petition, go to: http://www.palestinecivilrightscampaign.org)