BEIRUT: “Only employ legal workers and benefit from the grace period,” a banner on the Labor Ministry’s website reads.
A deadline for workplaces and illegal foreign workers in the country runs out Tuesday, raising fears over the fate of the future of many non-Lebanese employees.
Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman, who is spearheading the campaign, told The Daily Star that the law was “nothing new” and that after many years of failing to implement it, “we need to apply it.”
The banner on the ministry’s website also calls on Lebanese institutions to sort out the legality of their foreign employees in order not to “lose this chance.”
So far, the minister said that an “overwhelming” number of employers had not sorted out their workers’ papers. Only “1,700 employers have registered,” out of what he guessed were several hundred thousand.
The campaign comes on the heels of increased anti-Syrian rhetoric by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and other politicians.
Lebanon has extremely poor infrastructure, which has come under greater stress since the arrival of Syrian refugees; however, it was already decrepit and a major complaint of the Lebanese long before the war in Syria began.
Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency has said Syrians spend $1.03 million per day on housing in Lebanon. In 2016, four in five refugees registered with the agency were women and children.
Last month, Bassil urged municipalities to contribute to the return of refugees by “implementing the law and protecting public order.”
Municipalities across the country have imposed measures considered illegal by many, such as curfews for Syrian refugees. The Free Patriotic Movement leader has also accused his detractors of either benefiting from the refugees’ stay or being “conspirators.”
But Abousleiman completely rejected attempts to link his ministry’s latest campaign to that of Bassil. Abousleiman, one of four Lebanese Forces ministers, archrivals of Bassil, said it was not targeting Syrians.
“I would like them to make the claim to my face. I feel like I am in colonial times. No one is saying it to my face. We are going out of our way to be reasonable.”
He went on: “The law is for anybody - could be a European. But that’s not the sort of person people are thinking about,” he added.
He said Syrians, in fact, had an advantage over other nationalities.
“Syrians have an exemption - their papers are 25 percent of normal costs that employer pays.”
But he said that there were other reasons why an employer wouldn’t want to register a Syrian worker.
“There are additional costs - like social security,” he said.
In an interview with The Daily Star last month, Abousleiman said he was working with business syndicates to set new regulations for employing Syrian workers once they obtained permits.
He said he told industrialists that he could exercise his exemption authority to allow them to employ Syrians as long as they hired three Lebanese workers for each Syrian employee. “I’m allowing Syrians to work in other areas [than those typically allowed under Lebanese law, such as agriculture and construction] as long as there is a commitment to employing Lebanese,” he said at the time.
Asked what would happen after the deadline passed, he said Monday that the state would go after the business and shop owners. If they were employing unregulated workers, they would pay a fine.
“If the company is not registered then we will close it down temporarily. I don’t want to close everybody down,” Abousleiman said.
Ahmad Mustapha, a Syrian hairdresser and graduate in political science working in Al-Tariq al-Jadideh, attributed Bassil’s rhetoric to geopolitical pressure from Hezbollah. “Bassil is saying what he says for political reasons. He is not really racist or sectarian. He faces external pressure from Iran and Hezbollah - that’s why he wants Syrians to return.”
The barber dismissed the strain Syrians supposedly place on the Lebanese state, a central argument in Bassil’s discourse.
“Lebanon can take more Syrians. [The state] doesn’t provide them with any services,” he said, adding that any support refugees receive was from international donors.
Mustapha observed that Bassil had successfully positioned himself as the protector of Christian rights.
“I think Bassil has given Christians their rights. He is the biggest zaim [leader] of the Christians.”
But Syrian deliverymen on Gemmayzeh’s popular Gouraud Street said they had noticed a palpable increase in anti-refugee rhetoric in the past 20 days.
“They have not yet made it illegal to work [in food delivery],” said Mohannad, who didn’t give his last name. He added that he and his colleagues had heard rumors of a countrywide crackdown on Syrian employees starting from July 10.
A Lebanese parking lot attendant in Gemmayzeh said he believed that the main aim was not to force Syrians to leave Lebanon.
“Just as if you traveled abroad, you would have residency and everything would be legal. It’s the same thing that [Syrians] should do,” said Tony, who declined to give his family name.