Électricité du Liban: Striking Workers Test Their Power
By: Rasha Abouzaki
Published Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Around 2500 contract workers, some of whom have spent a lifetime of service at Lebanon’s electricity company, are being threatened with mass layoffs. They are demanding permanent employment and decent wages and benefits.
The Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water has wronged four million Lebanese people for tens of years, as power rationing has sucked millions of dollars from their pockets for no reason.
The ministry is also mistreating 2,500 contract workers at Électricité du Liban (EDL) (Electricity of Lebanon). It has failed in the past 20 years to provide them with permanent employment, depriving them of social security, a monthly salary, and job security. It is threatening them with dismissal in a few months as they might be replaced by private companies.
Minister of Energy and Water Gebran Bassil, who refuses to even meet the committee that the contract workers formed yesterday, is describing these workers as troublemakers and outlaws. He went on to say that the workers should be thanking him because he is the first minister who has thought about adjusting their situation.
The minister’s plan allows 700 workers out of 2,500 to become full-time employees with benefits after undergoing civil service department exams. The exams put these contract workers, who have worked at EDL for 20 years and left college tens of years ago, up against new graduates and applicants with connections.
The minister waxed philosophical, arguing that the day laborers’ uprising for their rights “harms EDL.”
He went on, calling on contract workers to “thank whoever lied to them promising permanent employment.”
He said that the contract workers’ actions “undermine security,” after declaring that their tents resemble the “Tripoli tents.” As if social security for those people has no place in the theories of reform and change the minister raises.
Yesterday, in the EDL courtyard enveloped with black smoke, contract workers who “undermine security” stood shoulder to shoulder and their demand was one - permanent employment.
The committee of EDL contract workers decided on its course of action and that is peaceful escalation. Yesterday they came together overlooking their different political, sectarian, and confessional backgrounds. The women were closer to the smoke than the men. Their voices rising with others calling for an end to the injustice.
Fatima Rida, 37, is a member in the Mount Lebanon area office of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the minister’s party. She repeats the workers’ demand: “We want permanent employment.”
Rida addresses her “comrade” in the FPM, Gebran Bassil: “We had high hopes for you and instead of treating us fairly, you turned into a knife.” Rida has been working for nine years as a contract worker at EDL. “We come from good families, we have pride, and we have many years experience of doing this work. What Minister Bassil is doing is unfair - our demands are legitimate.”
Rida graduated from college about 15 years ago. She insists that all contract workers should become part of the staff at EDL as temporary employees, “then we’ll undergo a test that would be restricted to enabling us to advance in our work, and get promoted in terms of job category and rank, instead of throwing us outside the institution without compensation or alternative employment.”
Contract workers have been on strike for 29 days, which means they will not get a salary this month. “Despite that, we will persevere until we achieve our demands,” says Amal Amhaz.
Amhaz insists that we quote her statement that “we vote in Sin el-Fil and our family has 450 votes. We voted for the two FPM candidates in the past but in this round of elections we will not.”
Amhaz says she has worked as an administrative contract worker in the secretariat for three years and instead of having the Minister trying to guarantee and protect the rights of those who gave so much to this institution, he is jeopardizing their livelihoods. She says she will participate in any action, no matter the degree of escalation, not only to protect her rights but those of all her colleagues.
Nisrine al-Halabi has spent ten years of her 28 years working at EDL as a contract worker. “No social security, no stability, and continuous promises to provide permanent employment.” Monthly, she earns 700,000 Lebanese liras (LL) (US$466) and believes they have no chance of achieving their demands except through escalating their actions. “We will lock the doors just like the Ministry of Energy locks the doors of employment in the institution in our faces.”
Lina Srour, who is 36 years old, has similar complaints. She has been working for ten years in the institution without social security or permanent employment. She points out that she started work at an early age and grew up in the institution. “Where will I find work in this country of unemployment now? Are there surplus jobs out there that justify the Minister’s enthusiasm to fire us?”
Samira Fahs has been working as a contract worker at EDL for 14 years in the billing department. Her main demand is to join her colleagues at the sit-in. She thinks that what contract workers have been subjected to is inhuman.
“Where is the patriotism and the humanism in paying back workers who have sacrificed their lives in the full sense of the word by putting them out of work instead of providing them with permanent employment?” Fahs asks. She says that corruption and the stigma that Bassil is going to associate with contract workers will make it difficult for them to pass any test and everyone will be dismissed.
Insaf Budair is perplexed by this insistence in laying off contract workers: “We are the backbone of this institution, we work in everything, from management to collections to sweeping the floors. This institution functions on the backs of contract workers and now they want to fire us?”
Budair has worked at the institution for ten years, that is, since she was 24 years old. “We make LL 800,000 (US$600) at a time when each of us does the job of two employees due to a hiring freeze. Is this our reward?”
Echoes of the Ghandour Strike
In 1972, 1,200 workers from the Ghandour candy factories took action that shook Lebanese public opinion. Their demand was similar to those of EDL’s contract workes, but their numbers were less.
Three workers were killed and 14 wounded by the security forces. A protest was organized with the slogan “99 thieves and 17 robbers,” which was the number of MPs and ministers respectively.
The events now resemble those then. One of the contract workers says “Minister Gebran Bassil threatens us and intimidates us but we are only asking for our rights.”
Another worker, Nisrine Al-Halabi, says the situation is unbearable. She asks: “Do officials want us to escalate? How far do they want us to go?”
Keep in mind that 12 contract workers at EDL have already died, either because they suffered severe burns or were electrocuted.
Another 45 have been maimed, including four cases in which workers became severely disfigured.
In addition, three contract workers were permanently disabled, without ever receiving any compensation or medical care from their employer.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.