Lebanon: Broken Promises Behind Contract Workers’ Last Stand

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The government never held the exam, putting the workers under the mercy of private companies. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Mohamed Nazzal

Published Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Contract workers in Lebanon strike again! Their voices resonated across the country on January 14 and 15 after successfully blocking a vital Beirut highway for hours in opposition to their sacking by KVA, a private electric-distribution service provider. While the labor minister promised to hold the company accountable, KVA insisted it was the government that didn’t deliver on its promises.

Electricité du Liban (EDL) contract workers refused to “die in peace." The workers blocked Beirut’s Corniche al-Nahr freeway in an attempt to break the cycle of frustration that encompasses all Lebanese, though mainly its working class.

The workers, who have been lied to by the state after many years in its service, were finally sacked by KVA. Sixty-two workers are threatened with the same fate, so they stood together in front the company’s headquarters in Qarantina, blocking the freeway.

They clashed with the police but still refused to vacate the streets for the sake of mere promises. Loubnan Makhoul, head of the contract workers committee, stood in the middle of the street shouting, “Our lives are more important than the entire government. I am ready to die by a police bullet while defending my right and the lives of my children.”

Makhoul received a call from Interior Minister Marwan Charbel while the sit-in was being broadcasted live. Charbel pleaded with him to reopen the road and promised the workers’ voices would be heard. Yet Makhoul refused.

“Your excellency, we are sad to refuse your request but our childrens’ bread is on the line. … The state lied to us, and we no longer trust you."

Amid cheering workers, one shouted, “We are more important than Ahmad al-Assir and others, your excellency, you come to us." Even though the security forces resorted to violence, protesters still refused to clear the road.

Following the clashes, contract worker Bilal Bajouk said, “What is happening is mutual extortion among big capitalists at our expense. KVA seeks to blackmail EDL to get more money … We are the scapegoat heres." Labor Minister Salim Jreissati requested to meet a delegation of protesters.

What Is the Story of the Contract Workers?

About a year and a half ago, the Lebanese parliament passed a law aiming to give part-time workers at EDL fixed contracts. However, as part of the constitutional wonders in Lebanon, Speaker Nabih Berri never signed the law, and it was replaced by a “political agreement."

A year ago, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil insisted on assigning private companies to provide services, and look where it got us! This is the clearest demonstration of how a “partnership contract with the private sector” plays out.

The agreement was based on two provisions: KVA – one among three private service providers – shall keep employing contractors who used to work at EDL and shall register them in the social security fund. Then, the energy ministry would hold an exam and the contractors who passed would join EDL.

The government never held the exam, putting the workers under the mercy of private companies, which are now firing them, as if the political agreement never took place.

Why was the fixed contracts law issued by parliament never applied? One ugly and ridiculous pretext is “there was no sectarian balance among the contractors."

The contractors have been harassed by these companies, but the workers remained silent to preserve their source of income. But being laid off was the last straw.

The Extortion Scandal

Is there any truth to the contractors’ claims that big capitalists are blackmailing each other at their expense? Informed sources told Al-Akhbar that the unfolding events in KVA “amount to extortion. Recently the company submitted a $37 million bill to EDL that included payments for contract workers covering three months of their strike, in violation of the political agreement stipulating that the company pays the contractors."

In any case, if these salaries don’t exceed $7 million, where did the $37 million come from? The sources explained that the company also submitted bills amounting to $11 million for 2013, however, EDL only acknowledged $3 million.

Following his meeting with the contractors, Jreissati held a press conference expressing solidarity with them. He said, “I warn KVA that a political agreement has already been reached when we discussed the law. … No one is entitled to violate this understanding, mainly because it involves the rights of a Lebanese workforce that is still seeking a legal ceiling."

“We will summon the company for a meeting at 8 am tomorrow to discuss the reasons behind the layoffs and to take proper measures,” he said.

In a statement, KVA defended its decision to fire the workers, saying, “The contract signed between EDL and KVA on April 2, 2012 stipulated taking in some contract workers from EDL into KVA, while official authorities promised to fix their status by holding an exam to take some back into EDL, but that never happened. … The surplus in the number of contract workers became a big burden on the project, hindering the work of the company.”

Meanwhile, the extortion and finger-pointing continues. Once again, contract workers and the poor are the ones paying the price.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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