BEIRUT: Parliament endorsed a draft law to make around 1,800 contract workers at Electricite du Liban full-timers Wednesday, meeting a long-standing demand that has brought workers to the streets in sporadic protests over the past two years.
Other demands for social change in the country are meanwhile far from being satisfied, however, with teachers and public sector employees going on strike and threatening escalatory measures if their calls for a pay hike are further delayed.
The law, which includes several amendments, stipulates that the Council of Civil Service should hold examinations for workers to fill the state-owned company’s vacant posts.
The bill fulfills the workers’ demand that their respective fields be taken into consideration when the test is drawn up.
The law also stipulates that workers be paid an indemnity sum once they retire, a demand they were also pressing for. The sum will be worth two monthly salaries for every year of employment in the state-run electricity company.
Workers who are ineligible to take the exam because they are over 56 would also receive compensation based on the same calculation.
An argument broke out in Parliament after Kataeb party and Lebanese Forces MPs proposed that workers at the Qadisha Power Plant should benefit from the law as well.
Most of the staff at the power plant are Christians, while the majority of EDL contract workers in Beirut are Muslims.
Speaker Nabih Berri ended the discussion, saying that the law would apply to all EDL contract workers in Lebanon, including those from Qadisha.
Most contract workers in Beirut are supporters of Berri’s Amal Movement. Christian parties earlier expressed their opposition to making all EDL contract staff work full time, arguing that this would disrupt the sectarian balance.
Future Movement MP Mohammad Qabbani abstained from voting, while his colleague in the same bloc Nabil de Freij expressed reservations. Kataeb MP Nadim Gemayel expressed his opposition to the draft law.
“We’re done with this crap!” Berri said once the draft law was endorsed, a sign that the issue, which has dragged on for two years, was gnawing at his patience as well.
Contract workers expressed satisfaction with Parliament’s endorsement of the draft law, but Lubnan Makhoul, a representative for the contract workers, said he was still waiting to receive a copy of the law.
“You can never get 100 percent of what you ask, but according to what lawmakers told us, the amendments made to the draft law are fair enough for us. At least we got our most basic rights,” he told The Daily Star.
The workers have been holding daily protests since Monday, but they suspended a strike that started earlier during the day once the bill was endorsed.
In the southern city of Sidon, celebrations erupted among workers who were waiting for Parliament’s decision, distributing sweets to pedestrians and drivers.
The passing of the draft law came after negotiations were held with the participation of the Amal Movement, Hezbollah, the Kataeb Party, the Free Patriotic Movement, the LF, the Future Movement, Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi and representatives of contract workers.
Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar, Amal lawmaker Ali Bazzi and FPM MP Ibrahim Kanaan held a news conference in Parliament, hailing the passing of the law.
Among the 12 draft laws approved by Parliament during the session was one to increase maternal leave from 49 days to 70 days and another draft law appointing Justice Ministry employees as public notaries after introducing an appointment for which exams are required.
Parliament withdrew a draft law that would grant access to information on the request of Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who said that his government wanted a month in which to examine it.
Parliament will meet again Thursday morning to continue discussing the 70-item agenda of the session.
Berri said he would call for a two-day legislative session next week to discuss new draft laws.
He said a draft law to increase the salaries of public sector employees and teachers could also be on the agenda of next week’s session if it was finalized by Parliament’s joint committees, which are meeting Friday.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at Riad Solh Square in Downtown Beirut near Parliament as the session began, protesting Parliament’s delay in passing the draft law.
The protest was held after being called by the Union Coordination Committee, a coalition of public sector employees and teachers.
In a show of solidarity, Education Minister Elias Bou Saab walked from Parliament to the site of the protest.
Holding banners that read “The salary raise is our right,” protesters urged politicians and lawmakers to approve the pay hike.
“I want to ask forgiveness from the head of the Civil Defense because I did not ask permission to take to the streets,” one emergency worker said in an emotional speech.
“But I left the house because I feel oppressed,” the man, wearing his navy blue uniform, said as he saluted Civil Defense volunteers.
The joint committees failed to decide on a means to finance the wage hike, estimated to cost the Treasury at least $1.2 billion. The UCC calls for financing the pay hike by imposing taxes on bank deposits and real estate profits.
Lebanon’s Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh called for an installment plan to pay the wage hikes in a bid to ease pressure on the Treasury’s finances and avoid inflation. The UCC has rejected the installment plan.
After a meeting later Wednesday, the UCC said it would take all legitimate escalatory measures, including open-ended strikes, protests and demonstrations, until its demands were met. It also threatened to boycott the marking of official exams.
In a related development, Civil Defense volunteers blocked roads in Beirut and the highway leading to the city of Jounieh, demanding that a draft law to give them full-time status be endorsed. Parliament postponed looking into the draft law until next week, after Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk asked for time to look into it. – W.M., with additional reporting by Jana El Hassan