Lebanon: Proposed part-time employment legislation poses threat to workers’ rights

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Lebanese Civil Defence volunteers demonstrate along Beirut's Ramlet al-Baida beach demanding the Lebanese parliament to adopt a law regulating salaries, on April 9, 2014. Lebanese trade unions urged a general strike after parliament failed to pass a law regulating salaries that they had been calling for for years. AFP/Getty Images/Joseph Eid

By: Mouhamad Wehbe

Published Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Lebanese Businessmen Association (RDCL) has asked Lebanese Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi for assistance in pushing new legislation that would encourage part-time employment. Historically, this trend in the labor market has always reflected one of the leadings demands of employers who seek to avoid legal constraints related to things like the minimum wage, social security, end of service compensation, and leaves of all kind.

Over the years, capitalists succeeded in snatching innumerable gains that helped further concentrate wealth in their hands, at the expense of workers and the rights and entitlements they had previously secured. Indeed, the share of wages relative to the GDP has declined from about 60 percent in the 1970s to less than 25 percent at present, while profits rose to more than 70 percent of the GDP. It is worth noting here that half of the workforce in Lebanon are undeclared workers, and thus do not benefit from any allowances, welfare benefits, or entitlements.

It is in this context that legislation for part-time employment has been proposed. The draft builds on the “day-laborer” scheme that the Lebanese state adopted, contrary to the laws in place, throughout the past period. Despite the enormous disadvantages of day-labor, the proposal seeks to extend it to free employers of their obligations under the labor law: under the pretext of providing part-time jobs for undergraduates and housewives, the RDCL has called for enacting legislation for hourly (or daily) pay without providing transportation allowances, education allowances, or paid weekly, annual, sick, or maternity leaves. In addition, the legislation would free employers from having to provide healthcare coverage except in cases of occupational accidents and diseases. The proposal would also allegedly free employers from having to pay National Social Security Fund contributions or would lower their contributions under the pretext of promoting the declaration of their workers.

Does it help reduce unemployment?

The proposal was made public nearly a week ago at a conference organized by the RDCL and attended by the labor minister. RDCL chairman Fouad Zmokhol explained the proposal by noting that a large number of companies, shops, restaurants, and hotels hire university students on a part-time basis according to their needs and availability. Zmokhol said that it was important to regulate part-time employment in accordance to international standards, and give part-time workers their rights after a careful study of NSSF contributions.

In Zmokhol’s opinion, the proposal will help curb unemployment and encourage newcomers to the job market to find jobs without delay, and also guarantee them monthly incomes that would allow them to rely on themselves at an early age while obtaining the experience they need. Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Zmokhol explained that the project is not about reducing cost for companies as much as it is about ensuring workers benefit from NSSF contributions. He said that the segment of part-time workers who work for up to three hours a day are subject to NSSF contributions yet do not benefit from NSSF offerings, which now prompts companies to sign informal contracts which workers to avoid paying contributions that do not benefit workers or give them access to end-of service payments.

Zmokhol noted that getting this legislation passed should be in line with the regulations in force internationally, in that there are special laws for part-time employment. He said, “We are prepared to adopt international standards in agreement with local labor unions, bearing in mind that this proposal was not met with objection from the General Workers Union, which was represented at the panel discussion.”

International standards

Zmokhol said he was committed to international standards enshrined in the International Labor Convention No. 175 (Convention on Part-Time Work), adopted by the ILO in 1994, at the height of the rise of neo-liberalism.

This is a non-binding agreement that Lebanon did not sign. It defines part-time work as employment where normal working hours are less than normal working hours for full-time workers. This means that each employee who works less than 8 hours a day (or less than 48 hours per week) is considered a part-time worker. One can imagine what will happen in the labor market if the state adopts such legislation in Lebanon, as there is a huge tendency towards abolishing all obligations in the employer's relationship with the employee. It is also possible that most workers could become part-time workers.

The convention stipulates that part-time workers should get the same kind of job protection as full-time workers. However, the convention only mentions in this regard the right to establish trade unions, collective bargaining, and occupational health and safety. It also bars discrimination in employment and the workplace, but it interprets this on the basis of calculating wages per hour relative to full-time wages.

The danger does not lie there, but in the fact that the convention allows “adapting social security systems” and the exclusion of part-time workers from social security coverage and maternity rights. More importantly, the convention allows converting a full-time contract into a part-time contract, provided that this is voluntary – though “voluntary” is hard to achieve with a power dynamic that is tipped in favor of employers.

Concerns about productivity

Remarkably, a study published in 2014 by ILO experts titled “In Search of Good Quality Part-Time Employment” explains that many countries had promoted part-time work as a catalyst for groups like women, young people, people with chronic illnesses, or elderly people to be employed. The report says that there are concerns that part-time work could expand at the expense of full-time work, however, in addition to concerns over worker productivity.

However, the proposal in Lebanon comes in the context of questions raised in the labor market regarding dismissal of workers and the downturn suffered by private sector businesses. This proposal in particular cannot be taken out of this context, which pushes the discussion about the ways to adapt to the crisis in the direction of reducing labor rights instead of trying to address the structural flaws in the labor market resulting from the Lebanese economic model.

Indeed, the Lebanese model emphasizes rent-seeking over production, and hence, wealth redistribution in the Lebanese economy requires a different vision than the one the private sector has. The private sector believes the downturn will put part-time work on the table in negotiations with workers, who would be given a choice between part-time work and dismissal.

Blackmail by other means

According to a number of labor experts, this kind of blackmail that the private sector may resort to is part of the attack on workers in Lebanon, no matter what the stated purpose is and whether it is even in good faith. Indeed, the current labor law does not preclude the possibility of part-time contracts, because it does not specify a minimum for working hours but only a maximum. Therefore, discussing NSSF contributions for part-time work is something that should not be taken in isolation from economic policy, because this is at the heart of social rights in a country where citizens don’t have proper rights in terms of health care, transportation and education.

Furthermore, it is important to pay attention to the fact that the minimum wage in Lebanon is one of the most important gains for workers in the country. If this is assaulted, then an assault on other rights will follow. Hence, approving part-time employment as per this proposal would abolish the minimum wage and all worker rights related to it. It would sabotage the labor market and undo all regulations, especially as some have called for cancelling the link between the minimum wage and salaries/compensations for years now, with support from capitalists and even some in the government.

Other experts indicate that the right of university students to healthcare are guaranteed as being part of the population segment declared by universities. Contributions are collected from them in return for these social benefits. So would employers accept to modify the NSSF law in a way that would allow working students to benefit from end-of-service benefits in accordance to the level of current contributions? The good faith towards workers should go in that direction rather than in the direction of removing part-time work from NSSF and labor law coverage. This means that employers should stop trying to breach the labor law and should instead abolish informal contracts.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

"capitalist succeed in snatching innumerable gains that help concentrate wealth in their hands"

One would think that, wouldn't one, but is it true.

The thing is this - the costs of employing staff/workers is exorbitant - made so by the government sector.
However, the way that they skim the monies from workers is the same way that they skim monies from the employer.
We need to stop thinking of the boss as the enemy & he need to stop behaving like he is the enemy. In fact we are all victims to the same perpetrator The Political Arena & The Banking Sector.
Collecting monies for allowances, welfare benefits & entitlements is a ploy on the part of the governments. The government need to be grateful to the people who grow their food, build & run the utilities so that they personally have electricity, gas, water, build their houses & offices, make their cars, clean their toilets & their streets.
These good for nothing, fruit loops in a fairy cake box, have never broke a sweat, let alone done a days work.
The problem is that BUSINESS need to open its eyes & realize that it is not the Politician, nor the Bankers, nor the Unions - who pretend to be working on behalf of the people/common man - who are their friend but their staff/workers. WE THE PEOPLE - if they turned to us for support it would be there & on mass, we are a force to be reckoned with.
BUT - when someone attains a bit of money & or power, their head swells & they develop airs & graces & only to their detriment.
In Australia the banks - artificially & deliberately - held the currency at too high a rate - which caused business in Australia to be not able to compete -
HOLDEN AUTO MAKER , asked the Abbott government for subsidies & they refused - as a result HOLDEN are closing down so are FORD & TOYOTA - ALCOA & numerous other corporations & businesses.
ALL BANKRUPTED BUY THE BANKING SECTOR & THE POLITICAL ARENA.
The banks were clawing back some of their gambling losses - not from Wall St, to whom they lost them, but from Australian business & workers.

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