Since assuming his portfolio, Lebanese Minister of Labor Sajaan Azzi has become known for his stringent policy towards granting work permits to foreigners, while expanding the list of professions that are restricted to Lebanese citizens under the slogan of protecting the Lebanese workforce. The ongoing Syrian refugee crisis that erupted in 2011 has brought out this strictness even more. This is especially the case after the Ministry of Labor made granting residence for Syrians registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) contingent on signing a pledge not to work in Lebanon. This relatively new crisis resonates with the long suffering of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in relation to the restrictions on their right to work. Early signs of resolving the situation of the Palestinians began to surface in 2010. The labor and social security laws [which restrict the right to work] were amended. But they were not implemented on the ground. The Legal Agenda wanted to probe Azzi’s opinion about his ministry’s strict approach to the matter. Are the ministry’s policies based on studies or statistics of the labor market, or are these policies the result of a combination of personal views and approaches?
Azzi was Interviewed by Ghida Frangieh, Karim Nammour and Elham Barjas.
Arabic Transcript edited by Elham Barjas.
The Legal Agenda: It is known that you have been very strict about granting work permits to foreigners. What is your criteria for denying or granting a work permit? How is your approach different in this regard from those of your predecessors?
Azzi: When the Ministry of Labor receives applications for work permits for foreigners, it investigates. Unlike my predecessors, I make three types of inquiries. I contact the applicants and ask them about their applications. In 90% of cases, my suspicions are validated, especially since some countries mention the individual’s profession in their passports. For example, the owner of an Arabian perfumes shop visited me once, requesting a work permit for a cleaning girl. He submitted the application. I took a look at the application and saw the girl’s photo; she was strikingly beautiful, not in a suggestive immoral manner. I called him. He said: “No, she is the company’s manager and she is my friend.”
The Ministry of Labor also completely refrains from granting work permits in the field of “human resources”, since the foreign employee in this post will recruit people of his nationality. This happened when I granted a permit to a Palestinian to work as director of human resources at a Beirut hotel. As a result, the number of Palestinian staff in the hotel arose to 33, including the head of security. Palestinians are victims, but there is a security situation in the country and they are present in camps that contain “hotbeds of terrorism”. As for Palestinian refugees from Syria, the Ministry of Labor does not give them work permits in all cases, as the Lebanese Labor Law prohibits so. On my part, I certainly do not want to give them these permits.
The Legal Agenda: What about the decision to restrict certain professions to Lebanese citizens?
Azzi: I believe this decree protects the Lebanese workforce. On the other hand, I made some exceptions therein for Palestinians and Syrians. [The exceptions I made] set off an uproar: “the minister is racist, he restricts Syrians to 3 sectors”, it was said. I did not restrict them, “you, our Syrian brothers, from the time you came to Lebanon -before the war and before independence- have been working in 3 sectors: agriculture, construction, and cleaning. We did not change anything”. Thus, I am not the person who has limited them [to these 3 sectors], they have. I just announced it.
The Legal Agenda: Are there any studies on the needs of the labor market that you take into consideration when issuing such a decision or when you deny work permits?
Azzi: We do not have a study on the labor market in Lebanon. The last time a study was conducted was in 2008-2009.
The Legal Agenda: Do you follow a quota system or a ceiling when granting work permits to certain nationalities or in certain occupations?
Azzi: I cannot set a quota. For example, 90% of workers at Sukleen [garbage collection company], are foreign; no Lebanese citizens work in this profession. Thus, I have to grant a large number of work permits to foreigners working in this sector. However, In the banking domain, given the rates of unemployment, I cannot grant a mere 25% of work permits to foreigners. I judge based on profession. Only when there are no more Lebanese vying for banking jobs would I make room for foreigners.
The Legal Agenda: Do you have any statistics on unlicensed work? What are the measures taken against employers to stop unlicensed work?
Azzi: We have no statistics in this area. We visited a supermarket [once] and found 42 Syrian workers without work permits. We handed the owner a notice of violation amounting to LL2,700,000 [US$1,790.59]. Overall, there is a minister, not a ministry. Out of 262 supposed employees at the ministry, only 123 are actually present. However, I am a minister of labor and this is an administrative ministry. What we do is that we send an inspector to the institution where we issue a notice of violation. Last week, we discovered work violations in 16 major companies in Lebanon. If the fine is paid within 15 days, the amount drops to LL250,000 [US$165.80]. If it is not paid within 15 days, the case is then referred to the public prosecutor and stays dormant. We contact the Internal Security, General Security, and the municipalities to help us, but [they] don’t do anything.
The Legal Agenda: Does the Ministry of Labor automatically recognize the right to work for temporary residence holders among children of Lebanese mothers [married to foreigners]? Is there any facilitation in this regard?
Azzi: Children born to a Lebanese mother are treated just like any other foreigner. They need to get a work permit. The residence they have does not entitle them to work. However, they do get special treatment: anyone whose mother is Lebanese is immediately granted a work permit. I have no idea whether or not there is financial facilitation in this regard.
The Right to Work for Palestinians
The Legal Agenda: In 2010, a law was passed to ameliorate working conditions for Palestinians and secure their end-of-service indemnity, provided that they have a work permit. The Ministry of Labor also excluded them from the decision on restrictions of [certain] occupations. Has the number of Palestinians licensed to work increased after 2010?
Azzi: Exempting them from restrictions does not mean there is no preference for Lebanese. With 25% unemployment, 36% of whom are young, it is my duty to select Lebanese [citizens]. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Labor gives work permits to Palestinians. No other minister gave the Palestinians work permits as much as I did.
The Legal Agenda: What about renewal of work permits for Palestinian refugees? Has it become a formality, especially after the amendment of the law?
Azzi: It is not about being a Palestinian or a non-Palestinian. Renewing work permits is based on the first application for a permit. For example, when an employer requests a permit for a foreign person and sets a specific time period for the work contract, the permit shall only be renewed during this period.
The renewal of work permits for first category [jobs] did not go through the minister previously; they were automatically renewed at the respective departments. Recently, I have asked that all applications for work permits for the first category be referred to my office. Now, they are all referred to me, except for those related to domestic service.
The Legal Agenda: What are the occupations that you usually receive work permit applications for by Palestinian refugees? What are the professions for which you grant permits?
Azzi: The labor market has opened up [to foreigners] because of the absence of the state, and because of the lack of employers who care about the Lebanese community and the youth of Lebanon. That being said, the sectors with the most requests for work permits for Palestinians are: nursing, information technology, all the paramedical professions, non-governmental associations, workshops such as maintenance work and engineers, sales managers, taxi drivers, and waiters in restaurants and hotels.
The Right to Work for Syrians
The Legal Agenda: What are the conditions Syrians must meet to obtain work permits in Lebanon? Are these applications accepted for specific professions only? Can a Syrian be classified according to job categories like primary [types of jobs], secondary, or self-employed?
Azzi: In general, I am granting a bit more work permits to Syrians. This is due to the shortage of Lebanese labor in certain professions, such as construction. However, what is more dangerous than the Syrian workforce competition with the Lebanese, is the competition that Syrian businessmen pose to their Lebanese counterparts. A Syrian worker takes the place of a Lebanese worker in the labor market, therefore the loss is limited. On the other hand, when a Syrian businessman comes here, opens a sweets factory in Zahle, employs Syrians without obtaining work permits for them, pays them below the minimum wage, and sells at cheaper prices, a Lebanese sweets shop runs out of business as a result, and the loss here affects more than one Lebanese.
The Legal Agenda: Do you think the agreements between Lebanon and Syria facilitated matters for Syrians working in Lebanon?
Azzi: We do not need agreements between Lebanon and Syria. The Lebanese market needs Syrian workers. Instead of a Lebanese hiring a “Bangladeshi or Indian” worker, why not hire a Palestinian at a lesser cost, for example? but the security forces advise against that for security reasons.
The Legal Agenda: What do you have to say about the recommendations of Human Rights Watch in its recent report, [namely its calling for] cancelling the pledge not to work signed by Syrians registered with UNHCR?
Azzi: “The pledge not to work” was not based on a Lebanese request, but on a request by the UNHCR in 2011. Now, as the refugees are not returning [to Syria] anytime soon, and the war is far from over, they want to find them work here.
The Legal Agenda: What about Syrians working in refugee relief societies?
Azzi: We do not have an issue with any Syrian working within the framework of relief for displaced Syrians. It is true that during a certain stage I froze work permits for associations. That was for security reasons and affected all foreigners, noting that Syrians are the least dangerous in this regard.
The Legal Agenda: At the London Donors’ Conference, you were known to oppose linking aid to the requirement of finding jobs for Syrians?
Azzi: We reject the principle of conditioned [aid]. Later on, they will stipulate that we grant them [Syrians] citizenship in exchange for aid. We have had an experience before with Palestinian refugees.
The Legal Agenda: What are the main policies you adopted that you think have made a difference in the area of female domestic workers?
Azzi: I have closed 72 domestic worker offices since I assumed my post. I did not grant any license to open new offices. Working in domestic service is one of the problems in the Labor Law. The sponsorship system for workers in domestic service is backward [mutakhallif] and violates human rights. I am against this system. Replacing the written law is not what matters, just as it is not important to tailor a nice dress; what is more important is that the dress should fit.
We do not have a labor law that is able to keep up with the abolishment of the sponsorship system. More so, we don’t have [efficient] Lebanese state departments able to implement an alternative to the sponsorship system. Thus, between choosing to have a wound in my finger or to have my hand bleed, I choose the wound over bleeding. Abolishing this system not only requires a law, but also state organs and a general system that protects the housemaid when she leaves the house of her employers.
Therefore, there must be a state that protects the employer and the worker, not just a law. In Lebanon, the state is not able to provide protection to anyone.
The Legal Agenda: You have strongly opposed the establishment of a trade union for workers in domestic service. Do you not find it important that there be a representation of domestic workers in negotiations over their own affairs?
Azzi: The law does not allow me to authorize them to establish a union. In my opinion, there is a difference between representation and the ability to voice their demands and improve their status and working conditions on the one hand, and the establishment of a trade union on the other. They could join a trade union of Lebanese women working in domestic service, but such union does not exist.
The Legal Agenda: How is the law implemented in terms of ensuring the right of the disabled to work?
Azzi: I received a letter from the Social Security Administration Board stating that they cannot impose the memorandum in which I requested to oblige every institution to reserve 3% for people with disabilities upon recruitment of employees. They said that the businessmen representatives in the Board refused to do so. I responded that “the Lebanese law is more important than the Social Security Administration Board, and that the memorandum I sent to them should be respected”. For its part, the Ministry of Labor has exceeded the quota of employees with disabilities.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.
 The minister says the same thing about the National Employment Office. In the law, it should be composed of 148 employees, but on the ground there are only 29 employees.
 There is no special provision in applicable laws on procedures regarding children of Lebanese mothers.
 We could not validate this claim.
 There are two Syrian refugee categories in Lebanon due to the Syrian war. The first category is registered with the UNHCR, receives some aid therefrom, and cannot work in Lebanon at all, under the risk of loss of this aid. The other category is not registered with the UNHCR; they are in Lebanon under a residence granted under a Lebanese sponsor, or a study residence for students, subject to the pledge not to work requirement. Excluded from these residences are traders who enter Lebanon in such capacity or Syrian tourists.
 The minister attributes the granting of a large number of work permits to Syrians in the field of construction to the shortage of Lebanese workforce in this area. Expansion in this area seems to be similar to the nursing field, according to a discretionary decision by him and without clear criteria.
 Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who represented Lebanon at London Donors' Conference had a different stand. In his speech in London, he considered that “this conference should make a shift in the international response to the crisis, and the success of the conference is contingent on implementation of a number of mutual commitments between the Lebanese government and all international partners”.