Lebanon News

Subsisting between waitressing and school

A waitress in a cafe in Beirut. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Typically after 1 a.m., 19-year-old "Lisa" saunters into her tiny studio apartment, showers if she has the energy, and climbs into bed, exhausted. The life of a server in Lebanon is not luxurious.

“My salary goes to rent and I live off tips,” Lisa told The Daily Star, taking drags on a cigarette after her shift at Dar Café in Wardieh. She asked that her real name not be revealed.

Many jobs in Lebanon pay painfully low salaries that fail to match the relatively high cost of living. Those in the restaurant business – and not on the ownership side – face a tougher struggle than most as their work involves being on their feet for long periods of time, and getting by for the week often depends on the generosity of customers – basically, how much they receive in tips.

In parts of Europe and Australia, tipping is rare as servers are given salaries and service charges are often included in the final bill.

The United States has long had a tip-driven restaurant and bar sector but a debate is ongoing to change that as many servers, struggling to make ends meet, live with the insecurity of never knowing how much they will take home in any given week.

Still, in the U.S., tipping fewer than 15 percent is often viewed negatively and it is not uncommon for patrons to tip over 20 percent. This figure is much lower in Lebanon.

“You are lucky if you get 10 percent,” Lisa said, “and some people don’t tip at all.”

Salaries for servers vary, but $500 a month is often seen as generous remuneration. But with the price of living ever increasing in Beirut, many servers look for second jobs. Lisa's situation is slightly different as she is trying to support herself while studying in university.

“I wake up at 6 a.m., get out the door by 7 a.m., it takes me an hour and a half to get to university because it’s in Hadath,” she explained, adding that the state-run Lebanese University was the only one she could afford to attend. Her classes run from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., but she has to leave early to make it to work in Wardieh, near Hamra, at 4 p.m. Her day finally comes to a close at 1 a.m. when she drags herself home.

But leaving school early comes with a price. “I’m failing because I can’t attend my classes,” she said. “I don’t want to be negative or pessimistic because I’m not like that.” Lisa said she was a positive person and grateful for everything around her, but The Daily Star caught her on a bad day, when she describes her situation as “f--king sh---y.”

Despite filling in a form with her university to let the administration know she was a working student, a professor recently told her, “You can’t work. You’re not allowed.”

Lisa said that education was the most important thing to her and she wants to better herself so she doesn’t have to be a waitress for the rest of her life. “It’s a young person’s job. It takes a lot of energy and you can’t do it when you’re older,” she said. With her family based in Tyre, in the south, Lisa wasn’t able to afford university last year, so she waitressed and saved up the money. This year she has been in school for only about a month but has already visited the hospital once out of exhaustion.

During the interview, Lisa appeared fatigued but said she had grown so accustomed to work and her spell of exhaustion only kept her home for a little over a day.

Lisa only eats once a day – usually at work – and has lost 40 kg – “I was morbidly obese before” – she said. But she has little other choice at the moment, as her family can’t provide for her and she is desperate for an education and will somehow have to maintain this schedule for the next three to four years, a dangerous prospect for her health.

“Right now, I can’t see the bright side,” she said, forcing a smile, before brushing it off with an excuse. “It’s just exhaustion and being alone.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 30, 2014, on page 2.

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