Employees vs Spinneys: A Union is Born
By: Hassan Chakrani
Published Wednesday, August 1, 2012
A group of Spinneys workers have risen up against violations of their rights and formed a union, after their employer tried to deprive them of their legally-sanctioned wage correction.
“My name is Wassim al-Ghadban. I have worked in the [Spinneys] Achrafieh branch for the last 8 years. I am a porter, so I do not get a salary. I rely on tips from customers. At the end of each day, we all have to pay the management a fee for allowing us to work. We are even forced to buy the company t-shirt we have to wear for 9,000 Lebanese Lira (LL) ($6).”
“We don’t have a fixed salary or insurance. We are deprived of our most basic rights. I am entitled to demand my rights, even a small partial salary that would make me feel more secure. I could add it to my tips, so I can feed my kids.”
In the world of business and politics, Ghadban’s rights have been swallowed up in the Spinneys profit-making machine. Justice and respect for the law are contrary to corporate policy. The giant retailer has been in the region since 1924 – its revenues are set to reach nine figures by the end of 2013.
Now, a group of Lebanese Spinneys workers have formed a union in order to protect their livelihoods from this corporate giant.
They declared their intentions at a press conference yesterday at the Press Syndicate on Beirut’s Corniche, announcing that “on July 26, we filed the application to establish the Spinneys Workers Union in Lebanon at the Ministry of Labor.”
They explained that it is now possible for any of the company’s 1,500 plus workers in the different branches to apply for union membership.
The launch of the union was in response to the systematic violations of workers rights by Spinneys management. The situation began to escalate at the beginning of summer, when the company’s regional director Michael Wright came up with a strange formula for applying the wage correction law, based on the adjustment of working hours.
The union founding committee read a statement explaining how “management was reluctant to abide by the wage correction law...It unilaterally modified working conditions related to shifts and productivity, applying a new salary scale which fully swallowed the legislated raise.”
Among the testimonies given by workers at the press conference was one by Johnson Aziz. He said that when the company opened the Hazmieh branch in 2008, entry level salaries were set at LL800,000 ($533).
But workers in other branches were receiving LL700,000 ($467), so they demanded to be treated equally. The company waited four months to give them the LL100,000 raise.
At that time, the wage correction bill was close to being passed. When it was approved, the workers demanded a wage correction, according to the new law. But management decided to include the LL100,000 in the new raise, instead of adding it on.
“When we complained, the management answered: ‘This is the procedure we will be applying; it is what Michael Wright wants. If you do not like it, you can leave.'”
Aziz also spoke about an injury he incurred at work some time ago. The only diagnosis the company doctor gave him was to tell him that he was “impolite."
At a later stage, the workers began arguing against the formula imposed by management to correct their wages. Some were forced to sign settlement agreements with the company.
“You have to sign these settlement papers as soon as possible because the labor ministry wanted them quickly. This is what Michael Wright wants,” the management told them. In Aziz’s case, “they reduced my weekly working hours from 48 to 46.1.”
Wright acted however he pleased up until yesterday. He drew up punitive measures against workers who dared to raise their voices and demand the application of the law.
One of them was Samir Taouk. He had been a Spinneys employee for 11 years. During the wage correction protest, he signed a petition with 130 other colleagues. Management decided to punish him, so he sued. His court session will be next October.
This is why the union is such a significant development. It raises the confidence of workers to form unions, not just at Spinneys, but in the numerous companies that violate labor laws.
The launching ceremony included people from all sectors – union activists, media personalities and even reformist politicians, who are not welcomed within Lebanese politics, like former labor minister Charbel Nahhas.
The founding committee said they trust that the current “labor minister [Salim Jraissati] will be keen to ensure our right to organize a union, and act accordingly.”
The committee further reminded officials that the government had sent parliament a request to approve the accession of Lebanon to International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 87.
The convention already includes more than 150 states and ensures the freedom to establish unions without prior approval or complications.
The committee said the new union “was born out of a harsh struggle with a management that refuses to abide by the most basic laws...Our union is involved in a fierce battles, not for regular demands, but simply for due respect for the laws of this country.”
Senior Specialist in Workers’ Activities at the ILO, Mustafa Said, announced that his office “welcomes the creation of a new union for Spinneys workers and employees.”
“It would not be possible to reach real social stability without a proper union movement representing its members’ interests...Capitalist mood swings cannot continue without the respect of labor laws and workers’ rights,” he added.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.