Abi Hanna: Last Days at Spinneys

He worked at Spinneys for eight hours a day, with paid holidays and national insurance. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Mouhamad Wehbe

Published Friday, November 9, 2012

Elie Abi Hanna was a security guard at the Spinneys grocery giant for 12 years before the company fired him for his union activities, in spite of a court order granting him protection from exactly this sort of retaliation.

The battle lines have been drawn at the Spinneys supermarket chain, and so far four people have fallen victim to management’s attempts to stop the newly established Spinneys Workers Union. The first was Samir Tawq, then Milad Barakat and Moukheiber Habshi. Hanna is now the fourth.

When a private company dismisses an employee for being active in a union, he or she becomes a heroic figure to his or her fellow workers. But unfortunately, being unemployed leaves one vulnerable to social, economic, and political pressures, especially in a country like Lebanon with few labor protections and no social safety net.

Hanna considers his dismissal a badge of honor which he has dedicated to his colleagues at Spinneys, especially those who gained a significant part of their rights as a direct result of the establishment of the Spinneys Workers Union.

The company has proved itself capable of almost anything – including violence – when it comes to suppressing union activists. In October 2012, a union leader was assaulted in the parking lot of Spinneys Dbayeh branch and told by his attackers to leave the union “or we’ll break your bones.”

“These threats will not stand in the way of us uniting in the face of arbitrary mistreatment,” Hanna said. “On the contrary, they are an incentive to stand up to any problems or injustice that the workers face.”

Despite his sadness over losing his job, Hanna tries to remain optimistic. He is polite even while angry, refusing to say anything unreasonable about the company or his colleagues. He glosses over the cruelty he was subjected to by the management, changing the subject to his various health problems; he has metal pins and screws in his back which make it hard for him to move, and he suffers from diabetes.

Hanna’s story at Spinneys began at the end of 2001, when he thought he had finally found a job suitable for his needs having worked previously as a car mechanic.

“Working in security was easier for me than cars, because my health no longer allowed me to carry out physically demanding work,” said Hanna.

He worked at Spinneys for eight hours a day, with paid holidays and national insurance.

“Before the union, some of us worked without health insurance. Some did not even receive a salary. All that changed because of the union,” he said.

Yet Hanna never received the raise that management promised him. Four times he was assured that his quite low income would be raised by $100, but it never happened. The first time, he was promised a raise after six months of starting work. The next three times, “I waited, but it was pie in the sky,” he said.

Things changed drastically in the last few months. Hanna, like many of his colleagues, felt victimized and decided to demand his rights as a worker under the law. He joined Samir Tawq, Milad Barakat, and nine others in asking for a raise in line with inflation. He put his name down at the top of the list of the founders of the Spinneys Workers Union.

At this point, Hanna did not think much of it. As far as he knew, establishing a union was not a crime, and the company could not legally dismiss him for having done so. Hanna does not claim to be a legal expert, but he knows that the Spinneys company regulations, which have to be compatible with the labor laws in Lebanon, do not include any clauses prohibiting the establishment or joining of a union.

Hanna soon realized that the company meant to shut down the union by any means possible. First Samir Tawq and Milad Barakat were dismissed for their activism, and later, Milad Barakat and Moukheiber Habshi were viciously beaten for the same reasons.

It all started when Spinneys CEO Michael Wright decided to transfer Hanna from the Achrafiyeh branch to the one in Janah. Wright knew that Hanna lived in Zuk, and that the commute to Janah would be a burden. This was a way of putting pressure on Hanna, a method Wright had already used with other workers who were then dismissed.

Yet Hanna continued to show up for work in Janah. It took him two hours and 20 minutes to get there and one and a half to return home.

The difficulties did not end there. Wright decided to increase his workload to ten hours a day, with work starting at 9 am and finishing at 7 pm. This is when Hanna finally understood the company’s intentions. He was told by the director of the Hazmiyeh branch, Tony Tawq, that all this was being done to him to compel him to “dismiss his lawyer and withdraw his membership from the union.”

After moving him to the Janah branch, Wright gave Hanna a holiday, and went to the Achrafiyeh branch to inform him directly. At this point, Hanna protested against the decision to transfer him and explained that his health would not allow him to commute so far.

The company began to contact him daily to put pressure on him to dismiss his lawyer and withdraw from the union. Hanna was then informed that he would be transferred back to the Achrafiyeh branch, but when he went back to work, he discovered that he had been fired and the administration was refusing to give him his outstanding salary if he did not sign three documents, which he was not allowed to see.

The union had engaged lawyer Nizar Saghiyeh to defend the rights of the workers to engage in trade union activities. Saghiyeh raised a lawsuit before judge Zulfa al-Hassan to secure judicial protection for the founders of the union, which was granted.

Hanna’s dismissal was a direct violation of Judge Hassan’s order granting him judicial protection and came after the company had received a legal warning. Judge Hassan had ruled that transferring Hanna in his current condition would lead to a fundamental change in the nature of his work and his contract with the company. His dismissal is therefore a violation of Judge Hassan’s ruling and carries a fine of LL100 million ($66,423).

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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