Ongoing EDL labor dispute shines light on Lebanese state’s failure

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Protestors erect tents in front of the EDL headquarters in Mar Mikhael, Beirut. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Bou Haidar

Published Thursday, November 20, 2014

After losing all hope that political negotiations will lead to a “settlement” that grants electricity workers their rights, and ends “the occupation” of the main headquarters of a state facility, Électricité du Liban (EDL) announced that it will dispense with “state” protection and relocate to a safer location in the district of Keserwan.

On Wednesday, November 19, EDL announced, from its forced exile at the Zouk Power Plant, a “bankruptcy notice for the state,” adding that EDL’s management had given up hope that judicial and security bodies (and primarily, the political authority) will be able to end the more than three months-old “occupation” of the company’s headquarters by its employees’ (former contract workers).

Consequently, this means that the state failed to solve the contract workers crisis, which it had triggered itself over three years ago when it decided to freeze employment in the public sector and hire citizens as “contract workers” in a manner that violated basic labor laws and human rights.

Since the 1950s, EDL has owned a three-storey building comprised of six apartments as well as four houses in Zouk Mikael. Today, the head of the Zouk Power Plant lives in one of the houses, while two engineers are staying in two different apartments.

An EDL source said the compound is “mostly in ruins and covered with bushes” because it has been neglected for a long time.

The company said it started repairing and equipping the compound so it can be used as “a backup central building,” in order to manage this vital public facility “under the current circumstances or under any other circumstances that may occur in the future, especially since the central building is under occupation for the second time in two years.”

The same source said the company is determined to equip the backup building, regardless of when or how the crisis with contract workers will finally be resolved.

If the workers end the sit-in as a result of a “political solution” – that all parties are now accusing each other of blocking – it does not guarantee that they will not “occupy” the public facility again, especially if they do not like the results of the exclusive exam organized by the Civil Service Council to give a number of contractors full-time positions, the source argued.

Political authorities remained utterly silent despite the gravity of having the management of a strategic public facility announce that it lost hope in the state’s ability to secure its main headquarters, and made a decision to relocate to a sectarian canton that will act as a substitute protector instead of the supposed “state.”

Al-Akhbar could not reach an official source to comment about EDL’s decision. Nafez Qawas, media advisor to Prime Minister Tammam Salam, referred Al-Akhbar to the Minister of Energy and Water, saying Salam’s office “does not discuss such matters.” Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk and Energy and Water Resource Minister Arthur Nazarian also refused to comment.

For his part, MP Mohammed Qabbani, head of the public works, transport, energy and water resources parliamentary committee, said EDL’s announcement is equivalent to “a state’s bankruptcy notice,” then corrected himself saying, “It is the bankruptcy notice of EDL and the start of the state’s bankruptcy!”

“People closing (the central building in) Mar Mikhael, can also close (the backup building in) Zouk” Qabbani said, warning that “escaping” is not the answer and that EDL needs to “solve the contractors’ issue.”

According to Qabbani, an agreement was reached a few days ago between EDL and the contract workers, sponsored by MP Walid Jumblatt, and represented by MP Akram Chehayeb. The company initially approved the agreement but then refused to sign it, after it had been signed by representatives of the contract workers.

“There can be no solution without settlement” this cannot be done by force, Qabbani said, holding Minister Gebran Bassil responsible for the current crisis because he is “stopping Dabbas Group from paying the salaries (of former contract workers).”

Chehayeb, who says that he’s making phone calls and attending meetings with concerned parties, attributed “everyone’s problem (that is hindering the solution)” to the sectarian system, saying that it obstructs the establishment of a state and sponsors such “abnormal phenomena” in the electricity sector and in all other aspects of life.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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