In front of a small bakery in Beirut, a sign reads: “we want Lebanese employees”. However, the owner, 59-year old Saeed Abdallah Mussa, says that the sign has failed to attract any suitable candidates in over a month.
“The Lebanese want me to pay them 1,500 dollars a month, and give them holidays and a day off each week!” he complained, as he toiled away in the heat near his oven, preparing a popular street food called manoushe, oven-cooked dough topped with thyme, meat, or cheese.
Two young Syrian men work for him for 400 dollars (Dh1,500) a month, which is slightly under minimum wage. The job entails long hours in sweaty back rooms and no time off.
Seventy per cent of staff in Lebanon’s bakeries are Syrian and, like Mr Mussa’s employees, they work without permits, according to Chehadeh Al Masri, head of the union of bakery employees in Beirut and Mount-Lebanon.
That’s a problem for the Labour Ministry, which started cracking down last month on illegal foreign workers, fining and closing down shops that break the law, including bakeries. Fearing inspectors, Mr Mussa says he hired a Lebanese woman to just sit in the shop all day, though she did not know how to bake bread. As no inspectors showed up, he let her go after a few weeks.
Arguing that they cannot find Lebanese substitutes, the union of bakery owners threatened to strike in a press release published on Tuesday if they were not allowed to keep their Syrian employees.
A bakers’ strike would not go unnoticed. There are 215 registered bakeries in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, including some that employ up to 300 people, said Mr Al Masri, though he thinks unofficial figures are higher. Bread is an essential component of the Lebanese diet.
Three days later, Labour Minister Camille Bou Sleiman met union representatives and published a press release saying that he "fully understood" their position. In a phone conversation with The National, he said that he had told bakers that he would allow them to hire one foreigner for each Lebanese employee, a ratio that is only applied to the construction and agricultural sectors, traditionally dominated by Syrians. Normally, companies can only hire one foreigner for three Lebanese employees.
Mr Bou Sleiman said he would publish a decree to allow Syrians to work as bakers, though he would not say when. His predecessor had confined Syrians to three sectors: agriculture, cleaning and construction.
But the Labour Minister insisted that bakeries must respect the law and pay for work permits – roughly a couple hundred dollars a year – for their foreign staff, including Syrians. Work permits grant employees certain rights, such as an 8-hour workday and 15 days of holiday per year.
According to Mr Al Masri, bakers have never granted these rights since labour laws were written in 1946 because the price of bread is not flexible and currently fixed by the Economy Ministry at 1,500 Lebanese pounds ($1) for a bag of 900 grams of flat Arab-style bread, the most commonly sold bread in the local market. Any extra expenditures on workers would represent a dent in bakers’ profits. The head of the federation of unions of bakery owners, Kazem Ibrahim, did not answer to a request for comment.
Mr Bou Sleiman, an ex-finance lawyer whose appointment as Labour Minister in late January represented his first stint in politics, recognised that forcing bakers or other companies to implement labour laws is a daunting task. Lebanese labour laws have a long history of being ignored. The World Bank reported that in 2010, only half of the Lebanese labour force worked in the formal sector. According to Mr Bou Sleiman, there are 22 inspectors affiliated to the Labour Ministry for the entire country.
Bakers also complain that registering their foreign staff with the Labour Ministry would oblige them to pay social security charges (23.5 per cent of the total wage). Though Lebanese employees benefit from social security, foreigners do not.
Mr Bou Sleiman said that foreign employees contributing to social security for nothing was “unacceptable”.
“I am ready to prepare a draft law to submit to Parliament to change this once the situation had calmed down,” he said, referring to the uproar caused by his campaign, which was launched on July 9 after a one-month grace period.
Feeling targeted, Palestinians violently opposed it, staging protests and burning tyres in mid-July. The 175,000 strong community has lived in Lebanon for decades but cannot obtain Lebanese citizenship or equal work opportunities.
Despite their much larger number, close to one million, Syrians have kept quiet. Their position is more precarious. Local politicians are increasingly calling for them to return to their war-torn country, arguing that they represent a too heavy burden for the weak local economy, and anti-Syrian sentiment is on the rise.
Fadi, one of Mr Mussa’s Syrian employees in his bakery, said that if he ran into problems with the Labour Ministry for not having a work permit, he would go back to Syria. The 26-year old agricultural engineer, originally from Deir Ezzor, which was until under ISIS control between 2015 and 2017, fled to Lebanon that same year to avoid military service after completing his master’s degree. “Even Syria would be better than living like this,” he said.