BEIRUT: Tailor Nabil Qassem makes 35-40 shirts a week, each one costing $50. The need to find his monthly rent of $1,000 will bring him into work on Labor Day, a national holiday falling on May 1 that is meant to honor workers. Qassem, 40, has worked in his Hamra shop for the past four years. Before that he worked in someone else’s store.
Unlike the small businesses and informal sector workers who spoke to The Daily Star, Qassem maintains the importance of the holiday in principle, though he doesn’t plan to take the day off and celebrate.
For him, Labor Day “is just one of those holidays like Mother’s Day. ... We have to make a living.”
Many private sector workers blamed the precarious security situation for their inability to make ends meet in the past six months. Their plight has highlighted the absence of a comprehensive social assistance plan from the government, especially for workers in the informal sector, who often live on unpredictable wages month to month.
“We are in a very bad situation,” says electrician Ghassan Bedran.
“In the last 6-7 months, business has been reduced 50 percent.”
Bedran’s shop in Mar Mikhael, Beirut, brought in $10,000 per month last year. Now, it barely earns $4,000. “And they want higher wages,” he says, glancing at his handful of employees.
“If we give them higher salaries, we will have to close our doors.”
Bolstering the strength of unions to lobby for worker’s rights, such as the General Labor Confederation, would not make a difference either, the disillusioned Bedran says.
“All unions are political. They use workers and laborers for their own interests.”
Despite widespread disenchantment, gains for labor rights are looming on the horizon, especially in the area of social protection, according to the International Labor Organization.
Pension reform has long been a contentious issue, and last year – before the Cabinet was demoted to caretaker status – it was within reach for private sector workers, with a draft law devised by the government, the ILO and the World Bank.
“Lebanon is one of the few [countries] that does not have a pension scheme for private sector workers in place,” said Ursula Kulke of the ILO.
Currently, Lebanon operates an end-of-service indemnity program under which retirees receive a one-off payment amounting to one month for each year worked.
The amount was deemed insufficient to cover monthly living expenses and family support upon death. The draft scheme, stalled after the government changeover, would transform lump-sum payments into a monthly pension, guaranteeing individuals social security for the remainder of their lives.
“We hope we can continue discussions with the minister of labor and other responsible people in the Cabinet so we can proceed and so that hopefully in the near future there can be a pension scheme that provides regular benefits and income replacement to retirees,” Kulke said.
Nevertheless, Kulke said there was a pressing need to secure those who are not covered by the National Social Security Fund. Though private sector employees are insured under the NSSF, those working for the informal sector have no insurance apart from ad hoc payments and government cash transfers.
“What we would like to see is the real establishment of a social protection floor for these people so they can enjoy minimum income security,” said Kulke.
“The government is trying to do much already, but it’s become a big challenge with the Syrian refugees.”
Meanwhile, in the bustling district of Burj Hammoud, jeweler Raffy Bablanian worries about how to keep his family business afloat.
It’s not just the loss of revenues due to the security situation that worries him.
“I learned how to make jewelry from my father 45 years ago, and I thought I would do the same for my son, but he doesn’t want to do this job,” he says despondently. Business is never okay these days, but Bablanian has found ways to manage.
To find someone in the family to carry on with the jewelry-making tradition in the age of “computers and iPads” is another challenge altogether, he says, adding: “You can’t fix lack of inspiration with a wage hike.”