SMALL FIRMS, BIG PROBLEMS

January 11, 2014 - 5:09:45 am

A draft law recently approved by the Advisory Council recommends initiating stricter punitive action against food outlets, including stores and eateries. 

 

The draft suggests that, among other things, an outlet found in breach of the rules should be closed for two months rather than one, as punishment.

Talk of the draft has led to some worry among small businesses of different types —particularly the small and medium-sized eateries that will be directly affected, as well as basic service shops (like hair-cutting salons and laundries), retailers (grocery stores), bakeries, meat shops and beauty parlours, to name a few.

The owners and operators of these businesses say they wonder why the government is becoming stricter in their case and making laws more and more stringent, making it increasingly difficult for them to operate.

“In Qatar, it is becoming so difficult for a small business to operate and survive,” said an operator of a small eatery not wanting his name in print as that might offend the authorities. “Laws are being made stricter in our case, while big businesses are thriving, with little intervention from the authorities.”

The operators of small businesses say they face a number of challenges, prominent among them being frequent and unannounced inspections by municipal inspectors, visa woes with regard to their workers, and above all, having to wait for months on end to get an appointment with the Medical Commission that must run health checks on their newly recruited staff (barring laundry workers) so they can work. Renewal of health permits annually is also a must and that too takes a lot of time.

As for the eateries, even those that cater to an upper-middle or high-income clientele suffer such woes. An operator of one of them said he had to let a newly-hired worker sit idle for months before he could put him on the job because the Medical Commission wouldn’t give an appointment for the health check.

Under increasing pressure to cater to an exploding population, the Medical Commission has recently begun operations of a unit dedicated exclusively to low-income workers. 

Plans are also afoot to set up a separate unit within the premises of the Medical Commission in Abu Hamour for checks-ups for food handlers. The Commission announced last August that studies to the effect were being conducted.

It is common for eateries, meat shops, barber and beauty salons to confront a health inspector at odd times as they normally barge in unannounced. “An inspector slapped a fine of QR300 on me just because I was not wearing the apron. It was closing time and I was thinking of going home when a customer walked in, and I thought, ‘let me do his hair quickly’,” said an employee of a barber shop in the Old Airport Area of Doha.

Inspectors normally check how clean the kitchen of an eatery is, and check storage facilities for perishables like meat and fish. Then they check their quality and whether a raw material has outlived its validity.

Beauty salons are visited by women inspectors, and too often they find fault with beauty products and devices. Some are banned after the salons have imported them. 

But critics of small businesses defend the laws and the inspection and licensing regimes, and say they must be kept under leash since they deal with the people directly and can affect their health. “This is particularly true of eateries, food stores, meat shops and bakeries,” a critic said, asking not to be identified as he was making a negative comment.

Increasing focus of the government on labour accommodation and stricter rules governing them give smaller businesses added trouble, operators say. 

Smaller businesses can act irresponsibly, as was evident from the case of a fake meat company whose products were being promoted by neighbourhood stores, and not the bigger retail outlets, said businessman, Ahmed Al Khalaf. The company was unearthed recently by Doha Municipality’s inspectors.

“You can’t compare big businesses with the smaller ones. Big businesses have professional management, have policies in place for marketing, growth and expansion, and they fulfil certain high-profile criteria set by the government. Their policies are compatible with the state’s economic policies,” said financial expert Abdullah Al Khater.

“Small businesses have failed to appreciate the changes that are taking place in the country,” added Al Khater, citing the example of the neighbourhood store. 

“They are facing stiff competition from the bigger shopping complexes, and surviving on home deliveries and selling petty things, but they haven’t changed. They remain the same they were decades ago. Things were different then, as people were entirely dependent on them for their daily provisions. Not anymore.”

Woqod (Qatar Fuel) has come up with its signature department stores at its service stations all over, and Al Meera has established a popular chain. “Have you ever heard of a supermarket or a local eatery setting up chains?” wondered Al Khater.

“Several of them can come together and merge and branch out, so they have more resources and can have professional managements. They can expand and grow. But they lack this kind of vision.”

“And, tell me, why is it always a smaller or medium-sized eatery that is caught on the wrong side of the law? Why isn’t McDonald’s or KFC or any such globally-renowned outlet here caught violating health and safety rules?” he said. “It is because they have extremely professional management.”

To say that bigger businesses do not have challenges would be wrong. They have different and more formidable challenges, but due to their vision and professional management they successfully confront those challenges, he said.

“The main strength of a big business is that it changes with time, which is not the case with their smaller cousins.”

As for inspections and checks, they are a must since the government is also under pressure locally, as also from the international community, to ensure that they (smaller businesses) abide by labour and health and safety rules, said Al Khater.

Another financial expert said on condition of anonymity that big businesses largely make it a point to strictly abide by rules and regulations.

“It is absurd to think that they operate with ease. They are also subject to all kinds of inspections. Their labour camps and their offices are checked by government inspectors rather frequently,” said the expert. “They are subject to all kinds of licensing, too.”

On the other hand, small businesses can exploit their workers. “Take the example of grocery store workers. Many of them put in more than 10 hours daily without being paid extra.”

Ahmed Al Khalaf, businessman, said he personally believed that the biggest challenge faced by a small business was the increasing rent. “That’s a major problem.”

The government recently announced building of commercial streets in different parts of Doha and the rest of the country, and that would provide enough space for shops, showrooms and other businesses.

“I think the idea is to combat the galloping rent inflation in this sector — small and medium-sized businesses,” said Al Khalaf. 

“At the same time, I hope the space would be given away at affordable rent, for its beneficiaries would largely be young entrepreneurs.”

“You need less capital to launch a small business, and this sector is too lucrative for investment, particularly by the young entrepreneur,” said Al Khalaf.

The question now is whether Qatar is a good place to do a small business considering that inflation is galloping, rents are going up rather steeply, workers’ wages are increasing literally by the day and, finally, there are so many restrictions on visas to recruit workers.

The Peninsula

 

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