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Industry woes

Fadi Abboud calls for desperately needed government support in the manufacturing sector

by Executive Staff

In 2003, the manufacturing sector witnessed some improvements, mainly related to healthier exports. By and large, though, 2003 has not been much different from previous years. The fact remains that Lebanese manufacturers are still operating in a moribund economy. Furthermore, mixing politics and economics is adding to our woes. Lebanon doesn’t know in which direction it is heading. The Lebanese Government has run out of ideas on how to promote growth, as was clear most grievously in the tariff-lowering decisions of the year 2000, when the death sentence was passed on the Lebanese manufacturing sector. However, the last wish of the condemned was not even granted, when, upon lowering tariffs, the government reneged on a promise to create a ministerial committee to assess and bring down the costs of production, to offset the damage resulting from lower tariffs. In fact, instead of bringing down costs of production, the government burdened the private sector with additional costs, namely transport and education allowances. Moreover, the government maintains relatively high tariffs on goods that are NOT made in Lebanon, rather than the other way round, such as cars, petrol, alcohol and tobacco, which represent more than 85% of custom duties. Even raw materials, which are not made in Lebanon such as iron roads, and spare parts for generators, still pay high duties. This is an anomaly that is probably unique to our country.

Some of the consequences of the government’s decisions in 2000 have begun to appear in 2003, with the tariffs coming down by 60% from already historic lows in 2003, as a result of the Arab Free Trade Area. The damage will continue in 2004 and 2005, when tariffs come down by 80% and 100%, respectively. This will bring down tariffs to zero among the Arab nations with whom we trade, except that, these Arab countries have a huge advantage over us, as their costs of production are much lower that ours.

The political fabric of Lebanon unfortunately encourages negative behavior (witness the government’s speedy reaction to farmers spilling apples in the streets). Now tariffs (recently imposed to protect local apple growers) are part of the government’s dictionary again. But for three years, the government refused to consider similar tariff increases for the industrial sector, even though such tariffs provide a safety net for manufacturers trying to compete with subsidy-laden Arab and Asian goods.

How can businesses and manufacturers grow in such a fluid environment? Lebanese businesses are required to defy logic by working in a burdensome and costly operating environment. If the government is concerned with, or even a little embarrassed by, closing businesses, emigration and unemployment, among others, it must change its priorities, policies and habits. It must become obsessed by promoting growth and job creation all over Lebanon. If the government cannot bring down production costs, which are the result of inefficient monopolies, then it should seriously consider imposing higher tariffs on imported goods, just as in the case of apple growers.

In addition to Lebanon’s unusually high production costs, including labor, energy and transport, Lebanese manufacturers have to remain nimble and competitive against an onslaught of non-traditional expenses, deriving mainly from bureaucratic red-tape, inefficiency, poor postal services, prohibitive communication costs and restrictive labor markets,

If these practices continue, Lebanese factories will vanish at an accelerated rate. Unfortunately, this would not be the result of “Creative Destruction,” where industries disappear today and new ones are born tomorrow. Far from it – if factories go bust under the prevailing conditions, it is difficult to foresee the birth of new enterprises and the new jobs that go with them.

It is, therefore, imperative today to tackle the causes that keep our factories shackled and unable to compete. Most of the detrimental costs that were mentioned above are relatively easy to deal with since they need no more than a bold government decision. But labor issues need a change of mentality.

So let us concentrate on restrictive labor practices and ask why, for example, Petrol Station owners, according to an informal survey, prefer to hire non-Lebanese workers, even though the wages being paid to those foreign guest workers are $350 per month on average. This is almost double the minimum wage in Lebanon, and therefore a respectable enough salary for Lebanese workers to be seeking. It is no secret that some Lebanese employers shy away from hiring Lebanese workers because they are desperately trying to avoid getting mired in the maze of Lebanon’s restrictive labor laws, including expensive and time-consuming Social Security procedures. The outcome of this state of affairs is almost unique to Lebanon, whereby Labor Laws hinder employment creation, specially for Lebanese citizens. This is the only country in the world which punishes, from a tax point of view, he who employs a Lebanese citizen, and gives tax breaks if you employ foreign workers such as transport and education allowances, while affording the employed worker very few benefits and no safety net in the case of redundancy.

It is a true tragedy that our archaic labor laws have done so much damage to employment levels, not to mention to productivity, as the currently employed have little incentive to work hard while they feel secure in the job that the law protects, not the worker’s performance.

We agree with the government and all concerned parties that our workers are a major resource. Manufacturers should know because they spend years and make large investments in training their workers.

But it is futile to promote growth, employment generation and social development if the restrictive labor practices remain unchanged. We must possess the vision and the courage to change laws, practices and even mentalities. The priority now, as far as we are concerned, is for the country to move forward. Frankly, quibbling is a luxury that the economy cannot afford at this time. But this does not absolve the government of responsibility towards the industrial sector, as many promises have been made and few delivered, particularly concerning promoting exports.

Are manufacturers making unreasonable demands on a government with few resources to spare? Not at all, especially if one considers fast-paced developments in the world. Actually, Lebanon is far behind other countries in recognizing that sustainable industrial development is a prerequisite to fighting marginalization in a global economy. Our government does not even speak the same language as our international partners.

There is a vacuum in strategic thinking on industrial development that needs to be filled. Lebanon must show more commitment to the competitive capabilities of its industrial sector. We are not alone in having identified some of the major hindrances to growth. Independent European consultants have also found that Lebanon’s operating environment suffers from weak interactivity between state and industry, no public or international-standard industrial zones, costly public services and heavy and expensive administrative procedures. If the government does not solve these problems, how then are businesses supposed to survive, grow and thrive? How can we create enough jobs to keep people, especially the young, in Lebanon? Right now, Lebanon produces only one-third of the jobs it needs.

We know for a fact, and we have seen it all over the world, dynamic growth is a product of vision, policy, incentives and support Institutions. In 2004, as in years before and beyond, the manufacturing sector and the economy will continue to trudge along at best, if the Lebanese government does not become obsessed with promoting growth, before it is too late.

Fadi Abboud is the President of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists

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