After four years without work, the last 12 months also homeless, 62-year-old Orlando Sousa has grabbed a new lease on life by training for a new career as a shoeshiner in the Portuguese capital.
“My life has radically changed, it is like I have just been born,” the small man said with a big smile, perched on his wooden workbench with a polishing rag at the ready, a checkered cap angled jauntily on his head.
A construction worker who lost his job when the company he worked for closed, Sousa has just completed a two-month shoeshining course sponsored by a group of institutions to revive traditional trades amid rising unemployment and hardship.
The father of seven started working at 14, but has been surviving for the last few years on a monthly welfare grant of 113 euros (US$150), and has relied on the Salvation Army for a roof over his head for the past year.
Under the arches of Commerce Square in downtown Lisbon, a former business hub now a haunt for tourists flocking to the nearby Tagus estuary, Sousa waits for clients under the watchful eye of his teacher, Jose Roque, who has been polishing shoes for 30 years.
The two met through the training program run jointly by the Santa Casa de Misericordia de Lisboa charitable organization, a business school and the Cais association for the homeless.
It seeks to revive disappearing trades like those of a cobbler, knifegrinder or seamstress. In its pilot phase, the program currently involves 10 apprentice shoeshiners and four teachers have been recruited from among Lisbon’s 15-odd remaining shoeshine boys.
Pupils undergo two months of training in the technical aspects as well as client skills and are sent back out into the world with the equipment they need to start their own businesses.
Cais president Henrique Pinto said: “We want to revive this trade because we have understood that by working hard and building a client base, a shoeshiner can earn enough to take care of himself and his family.”
Portugal is in the midst of a tough austerity drive after it had to be bailed out in May with a 78 billion euro (US$99.23 billion) rescue package put together by the EU and the IMF.
In November, its parliament adopted a tough austerity budget for this year that cut salaries, raised taxes and increased working hours for vast numbers of workers already squeezed by recession.
With a 12.4 percent unemployment rate in the third quarter of last year, a shrinking economy and inflation, “many people are only saved from total misery thanks to help from their loved ones, but how long can that last?” Pinto asked.
Outside the 200-year popular Martinho da Arcada cafe, frequented in the 1920s by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, Jose Roque said he earns about 35 euros per day, charging 2.5 euros for shoes and five euros for boots.
The minimum salary in Portugal is 565 euros per month.
“It is not as easy a job as it seems,” he said. “One must know how to use the brush and the cloth, and most importantly, how to please the client.”
Sousa still has some way to go.
After his training he set up shop on a corner of the square, but only saw two or three clients per day in his first week.
“I will not allow this to get me down. A good opportunity has presented itself, and I will seize it,” the sexagenarian said.
Finally, a client arrives and settles into a high stool leaning against a wall, placing his foot on a special platform.