BEIRUT: “Al-muyawimoun,” the part-time laborers at the Electricite du Liban, are determined not to abandon protests until their demand for permanent employment is realized. In an unprecedented escalation, the workers embarked on a hunger strike Monday morning. If it goes ahead as planned, up to 15 workers could join a five-person group that have already started the fast.
“If we were protesting in any other country, we would have brought down the government. Maybe now after we started the hunger strike, maybe they will listen to our demands,” said Hussein Allam, one of the five workers on hunger strike.
About 80 days ago, 2,500 part-time workers kicked off a nationwide strike to demand permanent employment at Lebanon’s sole electricity provider.
The strike, which saw the participation of the majority of the part-time workers, has crippled EDL’s entire operations as most maintenance works and bill collection came to a halt.
“I doubt anyone will listen to us. Politicians here are blind and deaf,” Allam added, seated at a protest tent set up inside the main reception area at the EDL’s headquarter in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district. “But they will not break us.”
The workers demand the implementation of a law granting them full-time jobs at EDL.
Despite being endorsed by Parliament, the law awaits the approval of the legislative body’s secretariat and a signature by the president.
But political bickering is likely to put the law on hold as Lebanon’s major Christian parties argue that if EDL were to employ contract workers full-time, it would cause a sectarian imbalance in the public sector.
Bilal Bajouk, who has been a spokesperson for the workers throughout their protest, denies such an imbalance would happen.
He said Lebanese law does not stipulate a need for sectarian balance at the fourth category, which is the lowest level of public service that the law would offer to part-time workers.
It is not the first time that such a strike occurs, according to Bajouk. Since 2006, the workers have been protesting frequently.
“But this escalation started when we, the service providers, were brought in to take our jobs,” Bajouk said in a reference to three private companies hired by EDL in a $780 million four-year contract that will effectively privatize power distribution.
“There is no turning back before the new law is applied,” added Bajouk, who has been a part-time worker since 1996.
Most of the part-time workers have rejected offers to work as full-time employees with the service providers.
“The protest is all about guaranteeing decent and stable employment. This would be completely unavailable at the private companies,” Jad Alromh, another EDL part-timer, said.
In the 1990s, he said, a subsidiary of Electricite du France, an international electricity provider, had been brought in as a service provider by the government of then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“When politics shifted from one political camp to the other, EDF was sent home along with its 400 employees less than a year after it was contracted. The workers went to protest day and night only to get the miserable posts we also have,” he said.
The workers have no intention to repeat a similar experience with the three service providers, Alromoh added – a view echoed by all part-time workers contacted by The Daily Star.
“How do you expect us to believe that [when Minister Gebran Bassil leaves his office] the service providers would not lose their contracts,” one protester said.
Lebanon’s public sector employees enjoy a guarantee of lifetime employment according to Lebanese laws. Moreover, political and sectarian safeguards often protect public servants from being dismissed.
Other benefits available to public employees include substantial end of service endowments and post-death remittances to employees’ families.
In comparison, the labor law allows private companies to lay off employees if valid reasons and legal compensations were offered.
However, for over two decades EDL has applied an employment freeze relying on part-timers, day laborers and private contractors for most of its distribution, repairs and bill collection services.
Hundreds of vacancies are thought to exist at the company.
Alromh dismissed as complete lies claims that the part-timers do not perform their jobs properly and are demanding permanent employment to enjoy lax working hours and benefits offered by public sector employment.
“We have built this company with our own hands. How can anyone accuse us of not working after losing 18 of our colleagues to work accidents and after over 120 were injured only in the last few years,” he said.
Nabil Dallati, a 44-year-old EDL part-timer, has been leading the protest in north Lebanon’s Jemmayzat. “We are sealing off the department and will not abandon the protest unless the president and Cabinet sign the law giving us the right for permanent employment,” he told The Daily Star.
Dallati goes on listing injustices the part-timers are subjected to. “All we get is a payment of LL28,000 per day. They do not even pay us for Sundays or public holidays,” he said.
“We do not even have National Social Security Fund subscriptions, health insurance, or even the transportation allowance.”
Dallati also said the part-time workers had no intention of joining the service providers.
“The contracts they are offering us are subject to a three-month trial period. What if they fire us after that?” he asked, citing other legal glitches in the contracts, which service providers claim have already been signed by 30 percent of the part-timers.