With jobs scarce, Lebanon’s labour minister pushes low-wage work

Lamia Yammine says the unemployed should take restaurant and other low-paying jobs they ‘usually wouldn’t work in’.

Saj Thawra group
Professionals Marc Darido and Rudy Hanna (left, both wearing ties) started a flatbread stand in downtown Beirut, Lebanon after the country's economic crisis left them unemployed [File: Courtesy Marc Darido, Thawra Saj]

Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon’s new Labour Minister Lamia Yammine on Thursday said Lebanese citizens will have to take on low-skilled jobs traditionally filled by migrant workers to cope with the effects of the country’s worst economic crisis in a generation.

“It’s difficult to create job opportunities in this economy, that will be up to a comprehensive government plan,” Yammine told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. “But what we can do is encourage Lebanese, via a campaign, to take jobs they wouldn’t usually work in – for example in restaurants, at fuel stations and at the airport.”

This means many employees accustomed to salaried jobs with benefits could find themselves taking low-skilled jobs with hourly or low pay – a sign of the large social shift that the country’s crisis may force upon the population.

Lebanon‘s mismanaged economy has been stagnant for nearly a decade. The crisis has deepened in recent months with an acute dollar shortage leading banks to restrict foreign currency withdrawals in the heavily dollarised economy, crushing imports.

The Lebanese pound has been pegged to the United States dollar since 1997 at 1500 to one greenback. That generous valuation gave locals a relatively high standard of living even as the country produced little and lived off imports.

But on parallel markets, the Lebanese pound is now worth at least 25 percent less than the official exchange rate, and the currency’s value could fall even further, along with living standards.

Scores of business have closed down and thousands of employees have been laid off or had their working hours and wages slashed. Meanwhile, prices of everyday goods have gone up.

The World Bank last year estimated that up to half of Lebanon’s population could fall into poverty, up from 30 percent in 2018. Unemployment, “especially among youth, is already high and could further rise sharply”, the development bank cautioned.

Lebanon is also suffering from a political crisis. Thousands have been taking to the streets for more than 100 days to demand a productive economy, an end to corruption and the ouster of sectarian leaders who have ruled the country since its civil war ended in 1990.

Those protesters brought down the government of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri on October 29.

Yammine is part of a new government of 20 ministers – most of them technocrats – formed last week by former education minister and new Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

“We are working on an emergency plan to deal with people being laid off, to mediate between employer and employee,” Yammine said.

“We can’t prevent companies from taking this step, but we can exert pressure to get the best results possible.”

Saj Thawra sign
Marc Darido and Rudy Hanna, two professionals with degrees, opened a flatbread stand – Thawra Saj – that sports a sign reading ‘we won’t give up’ [File: Courtesy of Marc Darido, Thawra Saj]


Stopgap initiative

Some people in Lebanon, like 24-year-old Marc Darido and 22-year-old Rudy Hanna, are coping with layoffs in a creative manner, albeit only with the short-term fix in mind.

Darido said he was laid off from a salaried job as a sales manager due to his participation in the Lebanese uprising. Hanna was let go soon afterwards, due to financial troubles at his previous employer, where he worked in business development.

Like most highly-educated Lebanese, Darido and Hanna both hold degrees – in hospitality management and computer science, respectively.

But with jobs scarce, Darido soon found himself unable to pay rent. He was ready to head back to his hometown of Zahle in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley when he and Hanna came up with a plan.

The duo headed down to Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square – the epicentre of the protest movement – with a juicer and a traditional Lebanese saj, a large, gas-fired stove used to make flatbread with cheese or zaatar.

Dressed in suits and ties, they plastered their degrees on the front of the stove, along with a sign reading “we got fired but won’t give up” and their business – Thawra Saj (Revolution Saj) – was born.

“There is no shame in work,” Darido told Al Jazeera, though he is the first to admit he doesn’t see a future for himself making flatbread.

“We also want to point out that Lebanese people have so much potential, but the country’s leaders have trashed the economy and now we’re here,” he said.

“I still see a lot of hope as long as we can get jobs that provide insurance and Lebanese realise we don’t need foreign workers to do everything for us,” Darido said.

Crackdown on foreign labour

As part of her plan for the labour ministry, Yammine said she would continue a process that began under her predecessor to have foreigners apply for work permits, rather than work without proper documentation.  

“The priority has to be for Lebanese – foreign workers are here and have rights – but we need to organise them better,” she said.

In Lebanon, “foreign workers” mostly refers to Palestinian and Syrian refugees, of which there are roughly 175,000 and one million, respectively.

The vast majority of Palestinians in Lebanon were born in Lebanon but do not have work permits due to restrictive conditions and a lack of personal documentation.

Meanwhile, only a couple thousand Syrians have work permits even though around half a million of them work in Lebanon, former Labour Minister Camille Abousleiman said last year.

Inspectors have issued thousands of fines and warnings and closed businesses since the crackdown was launched in July of last year. 

Palestinians in particular have vehemently rejected it and launched a series of protests and strikes over the summer.

Abousleiman insisted he was simply implementing Lebanese laws, which ban Palestinian refugees from working in roughly 70 professions and from owning property.

Palestinians, meanwhile, have argued they are unjustly targeted by the campaign because, as refugees, many don’t possess the basic documents necessary to obtain labour permits.

Reforming the kafala system

Lebanese and foreign activists have long demanded that Lebanon reform its kafala system for migrant workers, which has repeatedly been shown to facilitate employer abuse.

Under the system, workers can only terminate their contracts with employer approval, which can foster forced labour conditions.

Abousleiman had likened the system to “modern-day slavery” and brought in top rights groups and the International Labour Organization to reform it.

Just as the Lebanese uprising began last fall, he had been set to launch the first phase – a new contract that would extend the labour protections that are granted to Lebanese citizens and give them to migrant workers.

Yammine said she was taking the torch from Abousleiman on the issue, including on the new labour contract that she said is part of the ministry’s emergency plan.

“I’m obviously totally against slavery of these people, we need to treat them well,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera