Despite employment obstacles, refugee community doesn’t burden state’s social safety net
By Dalila Mahdawi
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
BEIRUT: Despite facing severe work restrictions, most Palestinian refugee households have at least one family member who is employed, constitute 10 per cent of all private consumption in Lebanon, and do not burden the Lebanese welfare system, a recent report has found.
The Najdeh (Welfare) Association, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization (NGO), published the report examining the contributions of Palestinian refugees to the Lebanese economy in January with funding from aid agencies Diakonia and Christian Aid, as part of its “right to work” campaign.
The study is the result of a survey of 1,500 households in eight refugee camps across Lebanon and a number of focus group discussions, and assesses the income of Palestinian refugees, challenges to and perceptions of work, and their contribution to the Lebanese economy. According to Najdeh, the study “constitutes a paradigm shift in research on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon from examining employability to examining the contribution to the economy of the host country Lebanon.”
Under Lebanese law, Palestinian refugees are barred from all but the most menial occupations. Nonetheless, the report found one third of the individuals sampled worked, 91.1 of households had a member who worked, and roughly 40 per cent were searching for work. Only 1.7 per cent of those surveyed had work permits, a fact the report said “renders the Palestinian refugee labor force invisible in official statistics” and exacerbates their socioeconomic marginalization.
Najdeh also found there was “disequilibrium in the contribution to the workforce among men and women typical to the region: women constitute only 20 per cent of those who work between ages 15 to 64 years.” No change to this disequilibrium had occurred since a similar report was published a decade ago, the report said.
Some 31.1 per cent of men of working age (defined as 15-64 years old) were not currently in employment, compared to 83.2 per cent of women in the same age group. More women were found to work between the ages of 40-44 and 55-65, the report found, because “women go to work after their children grow up” in line with their traditional gender role as homemakers, or because elder women “have already been involved in the workforce since their youth.”
Most men, meanwhile, worked when they were younger, between the ages of 25 and 29, and 35-39, in keeping with their time-honored gender role as breadwinner. However, significantly more men of working age were illiterate compared to their women counterparts. “This phenomenon may be considered a crude indicator of school dropouts,” Najdeh said.
Most Palestinian men and women worked in the private service sector, with men working predominantly in construction, industry, transport and agriculture. More women, meanwhile, were employed in the NGO sector or by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Because of “limited work opportunities for Palestinian refugees outside” their camps, most of the men and women surveyed were found to work within or on the peripheries of the camps.
Perhaps surprisingly, the report found that a greater proportion (67 per cent) of employed women worked full-time, compared to 62 per cent of men, who more often engaged “in seasonal, occasional and other work patterns.” Furthermore, more employed women (48.6 per cent) were employed by an establishment, whereas 49.6 per cent of men worked for an “individual employer.” Men were also more likely to stop working due to health problems.
Most men (59.6 per cent) and women (55.1 per cent) said they were “somewhat satisfied” with their current work environment, but “twice the proportion of women express being ‘very satisfied’ with health and safety conditions at work” compared to men (21.7 and 10.8 per cent respectively). This may be because more men engage in occupations with greater safety hazards, stated the report.
The majority of both men and women expressed dissatisfaction with their low income levels, the report added. Median monthly wages were $260-266 for men and $188-200 for women. An overwhelming majority (84 per cent) of Palestinian households furthermore believed there were no work prospects for their children in Lebanon, a perspective perhaps compounded by the fact the median monthly household income of Palestinian refugees had declined from $260-266.7 in 2007 to $108-112 “during the first half of 2008.” In addition, 54.9 per cent of households said they were supported financially by remittances from emigrant family members.
Individuals living with chronic illness constituted 16 per cent of the sample population in the report, 6.5 per cent of whom attributed their illness to occupation; 4.3 per cent of those with disabilities likewise attributed their disability to occupation. The report emphasized the difficulties these individuals faced, as because they are not legally supposed to work, they cannot claim insurance from UNRWA for occupational injuries. Consequently, “patients suffering from occupational injuries and their aftermath are vulnerable to financial as well as health-related catastrophes.”
Although Palestinian refugees cannot legally contribute much to the Lebanese economy through employment, the sheer amount of them living in the country (more than 400,000) means they count for 10 per cent ($352 million) of all private consumption in Lebanon. Food, healthcare and rent constitute their top spending priorities.
The report also found that despite a 60-year presence in Lebanon and extreme vulnerability as a group, Palestinian refugees “do not appear to have constituted a burden on the safety net system provided by the Lebanese welfare system.” The report stated UNRWA, NGOs and faith-based organizations represented the primary safety net for the Palestinian refugee community.
Palestinians also contributed to “invigorating” the areas surrounding their camps by creating low-cost markets for low-income and other marginalized communities in Lebanon. The “Sabra, Ein el-Hilweh and Nahr al-Bared camp markets are recognized as major informal economic hubs for the poor,” said the report, adding that the destruction of Nahr al-Bared during the battles of 2007 had “resulted in a gap in the Akkar” region in northern Lebanon for such communities.
Concluding the report, Najdeh spoke of the importance of granting Palestinian refugees the right to work and called for “implementing a formal economic strategic partnership between the Lebanese economic community and the Palestinian refugee economic community.” Najdeh also recommended allowing highly trained professionals to work in the Lebanese market “when needed,” and forming a dialogue committee between the Lebanese and Palestinian economic communities. “This would enable Palestinian refugees to work more effectively toward their own welfare and the development of the country hosting them,” said the report.