Nowadays Lebanon is witnessing a controversy about labour rights and the cabinet’s latest decision to increase minimum wage. 4 years ago I decided to break away from the chains of materialism and capitalism. Before I broke free though, I was working at a wholesale clothing business owned by a family member and his partner.
Working there I was treated as family which meant that I was a bit more privileged than the rest of the employees. I was paid $400 a month ($13 per-day) and I was the highest paid among the 3 employees as well as being the most trusted with cash transactions and sales. Mohammad, a young man from the neighborhood, was the one of the other employees: a Kurdish man whose family the bosses had known since he was a kid. He was halfway trusted and was paid $200 per month. The 3rd employee was never a fixed person; he was always a Syrian man that could be paid as little as possible but doing more work than all of us in the business combined. The Syrian employee did all the everyday cleaning, he carried the heavy packages and loaded and unloaded the cars and trucks. The Syrian employees that filled this rank always got paid $133 (200,000 LL) per-month.
At that time my ignorance disabled me from intervening (I didn’t know we could or should have rights) on behalf of myself and the two other employees when I saw and experienced our employer’s abuse. This kind of employment (a big wholesale business hiding behind fake papers as a small business) in Lebanon has been always an unfettered affair of exploitation by the employer towards the employee(s). The employer gets to treat the employee however they are feeling based on daily mood swings, and if business is bad god have mercy on the employees(s). In my experience the Syrian employee was the most exploited: it was ok to exploit him because the boss knew he could fire him any time he disobeyed or protested an order. He was entirely expendable, just like the window display that changed with each new season.
If we were having a slow business day the boss, who was never fond of us sitting down but wanted us to be doing something even when there was nothing to be done, would start giving us new jobs to do: asking the Syrian employee to go wash the car or me if I could drive his wife home. Sometimes we had to buy the groceries other times we were sent to buy his clothes for him, it went so far sometimes as to be told to go and do work at his house. All three of us employees never liked it when we were given tasks that where outside the business we worked for. The employer always saw signs of disagreement on our faces but he always fired the same expression at us: I’m not paying you a salary so you can sit on your ass. And so we always did his errands while despising him because we all desperately needed our salary and feared unemployment.
At this job there was no fixed working hours, it was only in theory that we all had to come in at 8:30am and leave at 8:00pm. When there was a new season it was money making time and big profits rolled in so we stayed at work for longer hours. I recall times it came to the hour of leaving and we were made to stay because the rest of the similar business in the Souk hadn’t closed yet. Greed and envy: the inspiring forces for the boss (es).
In these sorts of places let’s not forget that the boss was always religious (read sectarian) and committed to god but when it came to buying and selling he became the most secular person in the Souk. Money is the god and nothing is sacred in pursuit of it. I remember whenever we had a Christian customer the boss never stopped expressing his love for Jesus, at times I felt the boss was about to hang a crucifix from his neck. The bigger the bill the more secular the boss became.
We never had rights and did not know we could have rights; none of us had a lunch break so we had to eat while working. We had to work till the morning hours when it was Eid and there are so many Eids in Lebanon. If the boss said we had to come on Sunday we all had to come on our only day off and none of this was considered as overtime pay- it’s all in the package to the boss. I remember employees being fired just for refusing to come in on their day off or for showing up 10 minutes late for work. Any time the Syrian employee talked back to the boss he was fired on the spot. We were always intimidated by the fact that we could get fired at any time and there was nothing to stop the boss from doing so, we didn’t know that an employee should have rights. All we had were thoughts about the times other employees got fired over silly things, times when the boss felt the urge to prove his male dominance. When the boss decided that the services of the employee were not needed, all kinds of bigotry and insults fell on that employee; it was always a humiliation. The job was a daily reminder to us of our enslavement; we were trapped and degraded by our need for a wage.
This experience of one of Lebanon’s many businesses will continue in a series of writings that I will share here.