Lebanese Contract Workers’ Law: Just Words on Paper

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The figures at the president’s disposal put the number of contract workers EDL needs to hire at 793. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Friday, July 6, 2012

Considerable time could go by without the EDL contract workers’ law that was passed by parliament last Monday reaching Baabda Palace for President Michel Suleiman to take a decision on it.

After being ratified by parliament it has to be signed by Speaker Nabih Berri. It must then be referred to Prime Minister Najib Mikati for him to sign too, and after that sent to the president to promulgate it and request its publication in the Official Gazette.

Between now and then, a combination of political, constitutional and sectarian factors will come into play.

Suleiman has so far been declining to take a position on the law, without concealing his reaction to what happened at Monday’s raucous parliamentary session and its repercussions. He was certainly not happy with the outcome of the session, or the political and sectarian storm it stirred up.

One reason for his agitation had to do with numbers. The figures at the president’s disposal put the number of contract workers EDL needs to hire at 793. That could be increased to 1,000, but no more due to the burden this would place on public finances.

The president was not convinced there was an urgent need to give permanent posts to 2,500 contract workers. This was confirmed in a report he was sent by the company’s board, and at a meeting yesterday with Energy Minister Gebran Bassil.

But Suleiman was also concerned about the precedent that could be set by taking such a step under the duress of pressure from the street, warnings of unrest, threats, and illegal actions. Other groups in a similar situation at other public agencies – such as contract workers employed by the tobacco regie and the ministry of information – could resort to similar forms of pressure. All are demanding equal treatment.

Moreover, the fierce controversy sparked by the law’s passing, and the sectarian nature it has assumed, place the president in a dilemma. He cannot approve the law without setting himself against the Christian parties, which for the first time united in rejecting what they saw as sectarian discrimination in public employment. And he cannot send it back to parliament without inflaming sectarian passions, which this time have taken the form of a Christian-Muslim row that has not been lacking in venom.

It has also left everyone in a muddle. The Shia parties, Amal Movement and Hezbollah, who reaped the fruits of the law are now at odds with their Christian ally Michel Aoun. And the Sunnis, Future Movement, who supported it out of what they considered to be fairness are at odds with their allies, the Phalange and Lebanese Forces parties.

In light of all this, the president was initially intending to send the law back to parliament, but then opted to stay his hand to avoid contributing to a further escalation of the problem.

Suleiman is not judging the law in terms of its compliance with the National Charter, but in terms of its legality, its impact on the country’s internal stability, and of the state’s needs and available resources.

He does not see it as violating the Charter or the Constitution. To his mind, the Charter requires all sects to be involved in the process of political decision-making, but not in the appointment of employees. The Constitution mandates an equal proportion of Christians and Muslims in first-rank public posts, but that does not apply to junior levels and certainly not third-rank employees.

But the president does feel compelled to intervene because of the crisis it sparked and the Christian-Muslim sectarian dimension it has taken on, with some religious authorities also getting involved.

Suleiman has been telling everyone who asks that he will decide what to do about the law once it is referred to him and he has given it all due consideration. He will then either endorse it or send it back to parliament with a request for its reconsideration in line with Article 57 of the Constitution. If this happens, he must state his reasons, leaving it to parliament to either take these into account and amend the legislation, or insist on it.

But it would appear to suit several of the parties concerned to play for time.

These include the March 14 coalition, which has opted to proceed cautiously over a law which the Future Movement voted for, but has now become a burden due to Christian opposition.

In this regard, the postponement of yesterday’s meeting of parliament’s secretariat, which was supposed to ratify the minutes of Monday’s session, was tantamount to a retraction by those who voted in favor of the bill. It indicates that a search is underway for a way out that avoids either provoking the speaker and the Shia parties, allowing a precedent to be set in the way the law was passed, or causing a national and sectarian rift.

As the minutes were not approved by the secretariat, and it may take time to convene a new session of parliament to follow up on Monday’s, all the laws passed by the legislature – most notably the financial expenditure law – have been held up as a package. The minutes need to be ratified, and then the signatures of the speaker, prime minister and president obtained, before they become operative.

This holdup could spur on the search for a solution, while also providing the president with a respite and sparing him the prospect of sending the law back. That could mean that by the time it reaches Baabda, a compromise version would be agreed that combines the draft law presented by Mikati’s government with the proposed law passed by parliament. The process of ratifying the minutes could pave the way for such a deal.

The minutes cannot be ratified by the speaker on his own unless a new session of parliament is called and fails to achieve a quorum. This is made clear in the legislature’s rules of procedure.

The law may have been passed, but it remains ink on paper. It is inoperative and useless, good for nothing but fuelling further escalation, not just on the street, but also between allies and within sects.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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