BEIRUT: Caretaker Labor Minister Salim Jreissati will meet Wednesday with the private electricity service provider that sacked 62 contract workers, who then blocked the main Beirut highway in protest of the decision Tuesday, leaving thousands of drivers stranded for hours. The protesters, joined by state-run Electricite du Liban part-time workers, briefly clashed with police while gathering at the vital highway connecting the capital’s central district with the Metn region, causing suffocating traffic in Beirut and surrounding areas.
KVA, an electricity distribution service provider, sacked 62 contract workers earlier this month after terminating their contracts. Another 400 workers are expected to meet the same fate.
“I call on KVA to go back on its decision immediately,” Jreissati said in a news conference following a meeting with a delegation representing the fired employees.
“We will hold a meeting with KVA tomorrow [Wednesday] morning to discuss the situation,” he added.
Workers at the protest voiced anger and frustration over the situation. One protester, standing in the middle of the highway, said the fate of 62 families was hanging in the balance and criticized the resigned government for failing to look after its own citizens.
“Do they realize that this is the fate of 62 families of mothers, fathers and children?” one protester shouted.
A member of the contract workers committee told The Daily Star that the sacking of 62 employees was unfounded and that the problem had arisen due to a dispute between EDL and KVA.
According to Bilal Jaouk, EDL had refused to pay KVA the full bill for its services, which totaled $35 million. The state-run company only paid $7 million of the amount owed, prompting the private firm to lay off workers, Jaouk said.
“We are always the victims here and KVA fired the workers because it knew we would take to the streets and block roads, thinking this would pressure the electricity company [EDL] into pay them,” Jaouk said.
Jreissati said KVA violated a “political agreement” approved two years ago between EDL, the government and the service providers.
The agreement stipulated that hundreds of contract workers with EDL were to be distributed to three service providers after the state-run firm decided to privatize its services.
The deal was reached after hundreds of EDL contract workers protested for nearly three months against the government’s decision to privatize its maintenance services.
The workers were to remain employed at the private companies until Parliament passed a draft law to hire some of them at EDL. Others would be employed at a private company if they passed certain exams.
But the legislative branch has not been able to convene to endorse the legislation due to a political deadlock.
In a statement, KVA defended its decision to lay off the workers, saying the number of contract employees had become overwhelming.
“The surplus in the number of contract workers became a big burden on the project, hindering the work of the company.
“Therefore, KVA decided to dismiss a number of them but preserved their legal rights,” it added.
While apologizing for any delays in maintenance work, the company said it was keen on ending “this crisis as soon as possible.”
The workers suspended their demonstration within a few hours, after its delegation met with the labor minister, but they warned that they would resume protests if KVA failed to re-employ the workers.
Security forces, meanwhile, deployed on the highway in a bid to reopen the road, leading to a brief faceoff with the workers, who insisted on maintaining the road closure.
A spokesperson for the demonstrators said the problem would not be resolved until EDL provided workers with employment security by signing fixed contracts.