Spinneys: Rooted in Lebanese Corruption
By: Mohammad Zbeeb
Published Monday, September 3, 2012
Spinneys supermarket chain in Lebanon has figured out the magic formula for making hefty profits on the back of their workers. You simply buy off the political bosses who control the country and make out like a bandit.
Young blogger A.G. was astonished by the far-reaching power of the “octopus” that was able to threaten her job. She was a supporter of the organizing of Spinneys supermarket workers, who were in the process of establishing a new union.
She never thought she would face serious threats of dismissal from her employer, the media company Mindshare. She assumed she was practicing her basic right to express her opinions and positions outside the sphere of her work.
A.G. was forced to sign an oath not to undertake any activity in support of the workers. The company also made her remove all articles and materials related to the issue on her Facebook page and blog as a final warning.
Another activist, Z.N., was called to several clarification sessions with her superiors at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), following a complaint filed against her by Spinneys CEO Michael Wright for her activities supporting the workers.
Several activists also began receiving letters threatening them with legal action if they remain involved in a campaign calling for the boycott of Spinneys if the supermarket chain continues to violate its workers’ rights.
Some received warnings from their political and sectarian leaders – as well as their employers – who claimed that there were “diabolical” designs behind the Spinneys workers’ organizing efforts.
The rumor was spread that it was a communist movement, while in fact none of the Spinneys workers union founders are communist. They are for the most part unaligned, although a small number belong to the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the Lebanese Forces (LF), and the Amal Movement.
Former MP Gibran Taouk and his son William made sure LF partisans in Spinneys branches in Dbayeh, Achrafieh and Jbeil did not fall for unionists’ lures.
In the Tripoli branch, current MP Mohammad Kabbara and former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab told their followers to stay away from union work.
Fawzi al-Hashem, a union bureaucrat from Amal, addressed Shia workers in Jnah, Saida, Sour, Achrafieh, Jbeil, and Hazmieh. He warned them of the consequences of participating in any activity against their company’s management.
The Popular Nasserist Organization failed to call on its workers in the Saida branch to join the union. And even the leadership of the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) stopped supporting the activities of the Friends of Spinneys Workers solidarity group.
In the last sit-in outside the Achrafieh branch on Friday, the young communist activists present were not exactly following their leadership’s instructions. But the main surprise was the absence of the head of the Federation of Workers and Employees Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL) Castro Abdallah, who is close to the LCP leadership.
FPM activists were also absent from the sit-in, even though the action was to protest the sacking of the head of the founding committee of the union, Milad Barakat, who is affiliated with the party.
The leadership of the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (GCTL), in a long and boring statement, gave only one short phrase condemning the dismissal of Barakat for his lawful and legitimate union activity.
Unions belonging to Amal, Hezbollah, LF, Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), Baath, Future Movement, LCP, and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), who dominate the labor movement, did not find it necessary to defend union freedoms, unionization rights, or collective bargaining. They all acted as if the Spinneys issue did not concern them.
Future Movement media organizations launched a campaign to defend the company’s management against the workers, even though some of them are party members.
Although it has always boasted about being a defender of freedoms and workers rights, al-Jadeed TV channel decided to avoid the whole issue.
The FPM’s outlet, OTV, did something far worse. It changed its programming to prevent a regular rerun of an interview with former labor minister Charbel Nahhas. The minister had earlier refused to abide by the station’s conditions not to mention the Spinneys workers struggle in a live interview.
Because of its coverage of the issue, Al-Akhbar is no longer sold in Spinneys branches countrywide.
Advertising companies exerted serious pressure on newspapers, magazines, and other media. They tried to stop them from carrying out their professional duty of investigating the truth about workers conditions in the company.
Some of this pressure took the form of threats to deny media outlets large advertising budgets, not limited to Spinneys ads.
Current labor minister Salim Jreissati was mobilized to protect the Spinneys from any legal action and to block inspection agencies in the ministry from investigating violations.
He continues to refuse to give the union a license that would legally protect its members. He also allowed the company to force 700 of its workers to sign a petition that claimed the employees do not need a union to defend their rights.
When the minister finally succumbed to pressure and met with dismissed Spinneys union activists Milad Barakat and Samir Taouk, he brought with him the head of the union bureau in Amal, Ali Abdullah. He wanted to make it clear that they were facing a solid alliance.
Hoping to evade the Spinneys struggle, a judge ruled that the courts do not have the authority to look into a request by the union’s founding committee to prevent the management from firing union members while they await the minister’s decision.
The Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) was also involved. They patrolled Spinneys branches inquiring about some union activists.
Judicial and security officials affiliated with Metn MP Michel Murr illegally held Barakat – detaining him for several hours on two consecutive days – and interrogated him in an Achrafieh police station.
They said they were investigating claims by the company against Barakat. Management claimed that it feared he would react violently if he was dismissed. Later, it was revealed that the real reason was to force him to sign a guarantee not to enter its stores or offices, even as a customer.
The Economic-Security Regime
Spinneys is owned by Gulf Arab capital and run by Englishman Michael Wright. This has been enough to elevate it above the law.
Its business model depended heavily on protection provided by the political class which has been in power since the 1990s.
Its airtight scheme began with establishing its first branch on land owned by former MP Taouk in Dbayeh. Taouk was very close to Syrian security forces and had the support of Murr and MP Sleiman Frangieh.
Also, former MP Elie Skaf is married to his daughter Miriam and his niece is Strida Taouk, wife of LF commander Samir Geagea.
Gibran Taouk rents out the land to Spinneys for $3 million annually. But his relationship with the company goes beyond these huge profits.
His son William plays a prominent role next to Michael Wright in running the company’s contracts and deals, without having any formal position in the company. William played a leading role in suppressing worker activities and preventing them from unionizing.
The first post-war branch was launched in the mid-1990s and there were many more to come. Spinneys reopened in Bir Hassan, building its store on land owned by a Kuwaiti company sponsored by late prime minister Rafik Hariri.
In Achrafieh, it opened its branch on Greek Orthodox Church real estate. Then it went to Tripoli. There, the property chosen belonged to former MP Ahdab, who was still favored by the security regime.
In Saida, it opened on land owned by MP Yassine Jaber, who is very close to Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.
The company’s plan was to provide direct financial returns to local political elites, either through renting land from them or providing them with “quotas” to employ “their people.” Those involved in the scheme provided protection for the company and covered up its blatant violations.
More crucially, these political bosses controlled “their people,” whom they expected to be grateful for getting a job. They also transformed any dispute that the workers had with management into a disagreement with the political leadership.
This led to harsh working conditions. For the 300 porters who pay the company 5,000 Lebanese Lira (LL) ($3.33) a day to be allowed to work for tips, it is close to forced labor.
The same goes for the 200 employees who are not officially declared, and therefore do not received any benefits, under the pretext that they work by the hour. It is worth noting that their hourly rate does not exceed LL2,400 ($1.6).
This is how a private commercial company became an impregnable fortress, caring for neither law nor rights.
CEO Michael Wright, for example, never felt obliged to apply for the working permit required for all foreign nationals employed in Lebanon. He comes and goes as he wishes, stays as long as he wants, without being asked a question.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.