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Choucair: Firms must hire more Lebanese

President of the Chamber of Commerce Mohammad Choucair speaks during an interview with The Daily Star in Beirut, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: The new government must come up with a law banning Lebanese businesses from employing more than 10 percent non-nationals in order to reduce unemployment in the country, a leading business figure Tuesday said.

“Following the outbreak of the civil war in Syria and the flow of Syrians to Lebanon, we have seen a lot of Lebanese businesses replacing their employees with Syrian nationals,” Mohammad Choucair, head of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, told The Daily Star, adding that this practice has contributed to the rise in unemployment among youths to 40 percent.

Choucair said 85 percent of the workers in the agriculture industry in Lebanon today are Syrians.

An equally serious problem is the illegal operation of Syrian businesses in Lebanon which are placing a heavy burden on Lebanese companies and driving them out of business, he said.

“Lebanese businesses are facing illegal competition from their Syrian counterparts because they are [burdened with] costs that are not borne by their competitors,” he said, adding that Syrians were operating with 30 percent fewer costs than Lebanese businesses.

“We have felt this problem in the year 2013 because our industrial exports dropped by 6 percent,” he said.

Choucair underlined the importance of forming a government soon to facilitate control over such practices and ultimately close firms that operate illegally.

On the other hand, he invited Syrians who were willing to operate in a legal way to invest in Lebanon. “Lebanon is a free economy and I fully support legal foreign investors to operate in Lebanon,” he said.

“But I want illegal businesses to close because they are hurting our economy,” he added.

In Choucair’s opinion, the formation of a new government would also revive the private sector, which has been suffering for the past couple of years due to the unstable political and security situation and the absence of Gulf visitors and investors to the country.

Since May 2012, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain have warned their citizens against traveling to Lebanon because of the shaky security situation. This has caused an unprecedented economic slowdown and inflicted losses on many sectors of the economy, tourism in particular, while reducing foreign direct investments significantly.

According to statistics provided by IDAL, FDI in 2012 dropped to $3.78 billion, far lower than the $4.8 billion recorded in 2009.

It also projected a 21 percent decline in FDI in 2013.

This heavy drop, according to Choucair, was due to the absence of Gulf investors.

“Lebanon cannot survive without the Gulf countries and our [economic] sectors’ survival relies heavily on them,” he said.

Choucair added that 60 percent of tourism revenues in Lebanon and 85 percent of FDI come from the Gulf region. “Moreover, 40 percent of our exports go to the Gulf countries.”

Choucair said that the new government’s priority should be to restore security in the country in order to attract investments from the Gulf countries again.

“An investment of $1 billion would create between 8,000 and 10,000 job opportunities in Lebanon,” he said, adding that Lebanon was in dire need of such investments because the economic situation was very difficult and the country was on the verge of a major social problem.

“The great fear today is not of people taking to the streets and protesting against the dire economic circumstances, but rather the spread of crime due to an increase in unemployment and poverty.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 29, 2014, on page 5.

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Summary

The new government must come up with a law banning Lebanese businesses from employing more than 10 percent non-nationals in order to reduce unemployment in the country, a leading business figure Tuesday said.

Choucair said 85 percent of the workers in the agriculture industry in Lebanon today are Syrians.

An equally serious problem is the illegal operation of Syrian businesses in Lebanon which are placing a heavy burden on Lebanese companies and driving them out of business, he said.

Choucair added that 60 percent of tourism revenues in Lebanon and 85 percent of FDI come from the Gulf region.

Choucair said that the new government's priority should be to restore security in the country in order to attract investments from the Gulf countries again.


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