- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 April 18, 2003 

"Hello, My Name Is . . .": Business clerks forced into first-name basis with customers

"Excuse me, do you work here?" would sound a desperate question of a lost customer in a Yerevan supermarket. Often it is confusing separating the clerks from the customers.

But no more. Since April 1st the question sounds rather: "Karine jan, can I get some help here?"

Badges make the difference. By several changes and additions to an Administrative Code approved by the Armenian Parliament on December 26th last year, authorities have spread fear among all employees in the field of services and commerce to wear badges.

And curiously, the new rules have had a tremendous power. Rarely these days one can find a restaurant or shop where workers being in contact with customers do not wear identification badges.

This practice is a civilized way to approach consumers but what has really alerted bosses in the industry is the punishment they might get if breaking the law.

It turns out that the law itself has existed since 1997, however there was no punishment stipulated for those who ignored it.

But as of April 1, a business owner may be fined 20,000 drams (about $35) if an employee is found not wearing an id badge. A second offense increases to 50,000 drams (about $90).

The offending employee will be fined 500 drams (about 80 cents) for a first offense, doubled if there is a second infraction.

An identification badge can prevent a municipal fine.But why would the authorities care if waitresses or barmen, whose names they can get to know during a beer conversation anyway, wear badges? Because what they want to catch is much more serious.

Stepan Hayrapetyan, Counselor to the President of Social Insurance Fund, who had the initiative to establish the badges rule, says his idea was to fight the illegal employment in Armenia.

"These changes in the Administrative Code", he says, "aim at pulling out the cases of illegal use of labor force and protecting employees from being abused."

And this is primarily the reason why the punishment for employees is not as high as for their employers. "Owners are responsible for legalizing the work of their people", Hayrapetyan says, "and they should be punished if breaking the law."

According to statistics provided by the Social Insurance Fund, today there are approximately 150,000 illegal employees in the field of services, commerce and construction while the unregistered salaries, summed up at the moment when this juridical act was being drafted, mounted at 50 billion drams (about $85 million).

But beyond the intention to fight the shadow economy and protect the constitutional rights of workers, Hayrapetyan says that collecting taxes from the population is in particular an objective of the administrative changes he proposed.

All those hundreds of thousands of illegal workers mean unpaid taxes and the loss of the Social Insurance Fund for the last year only represented 28 billion Drams (about $48 million).

Now, what means will the authorities use to catch the bad guys? The Social Insurance Fund will organize, starting May 1st, regular inspections in restaurants, bars, stores and other commercial units to verify if persons wearing badges are officially employed.

What's in a name? Clerks are required to wear new id badges.Also, during such visits, the inspectors will check if employers are keeping a special record book, called the "book of orders", where all the information on hiring and firing people is included. If such a register does not exist in the employer's office, a fine of 100,000 drams and more is imposed.

While the new rules have come into force and workers started to wear badges, few of them perhaps are aware of the real purpose the authorities had in mind. Asked about wearing badges, employees at Jupiter Photo Express say "it is civilized and customers like it".

But making the office look nice and respectable is not necessarily something that members of staff like. Hermine Arakelyan, for example, the receptionist at the same photo studio, said she does not like wearing badges because it is a way to lose her privacy. "People see my name and sometimes pretend they have known me", she complains.

Garnik Tigranyan, a hair dresser, complains too: "It is uncomfortable to wear a badge while giving haircuts to my clients".

Whatever the reasons for liking it or not, customers are always right. As Nikolay Karakhanyan, a photographer that regularily uses the services of Jupiter Photo Express, puts it: "Badges change neither the personality of the ones who wear them, nor the system as a whole."


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  Photo of the week
  Spring Rites
Click on the photo above to enlarge

Spring Rites

April 13 was "Tsaghkazard", known in other places as Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, marking the day Jesus entered Jerusalem. Here, part of the commemoration includes making wreaths from branches which are worn by young people and then placed in homes. The day is also the seventh Sunday of the Great Fast, as observed among the Armenian Apostolic Church.



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