BEIRUT: Angry electricity workers blocked employees from entering the state-owned Electricite du Liban for a third day in a row Wednesday, as dozens of policemen, a fire truck and an ambulance stood by, prepared for another day of burning tires and road blocks.
“This is an open strike until our rights are respected!” shouted Mohammad Wehbe, one of dozens of technicians protesting EDL’s announcement that it would only hire some of the 1,800 contract workers whose contracts expire in 2016.
An EDL memo to the Water and Energy Ministry that surfaced Saturday said the company would be hiring 897, sparking outrage among the workers. An EDL executive told The Daily Star earlier this week that the protests were “premature” as the final number would be higher.
EDL has relied on external “day laborers” for years following a hiring freeze in the early ’90s. Wehbe said that during this period, he and those like him were hired by nonexistent contractors whose names EDL would change every three months in order to avoid registering them for social security, which ensures they are covered for injuries on the job.
The contract workers received an unfixed salary of about LL800,000 a month, without paid sick leave, vacation days or health insurance.
“Our work is dangerous,” said one of the workers responsible for checking electricity posts and networks. “We are working with electricity and we need at least to have insurance against physical injuries.”
The workers said they were promised “every day” that they would soon become permanent employees.
“We all entered EDL with the promise of being fixed [employees] as soon as possible, and this procrastination has left my fate in suspense for 13 years,” Wehbe said.
In 2012, then-Water and Energy Minister Gebran Bassil subcontracted three private firms to do the technical work of EDL – Debbas group, KVA and BUTEC Utility.
The contract workers admitted their working conditions improved once these firms took over. Their wages increased, and their files were sent to the social security fund. But with the contracts’ expiration date creeping nearer, the workers say they refuse to submit to another temporary solution by EDL, which they hold responsible for denying them protection and fair salaries for years.
Contract workers are officially calling to be hired as full-time employees by EDL, but many said they would not mind staying with their current employers if they receive guarantees that working conditions would not backslide once their contracts expire.
EDL’s decision to hire some contract workers full time followed the passing of a law four months ago obliging the company to determine the number of employees it needed and hire them.
“After the law came out, we were relieved, because we knew that EDL needs all of us to be employed,” said Ahmad Shoeib, the spokesperson for EDL’s day laborers union.
But the workers were shocked and disappointed when the number of positions was much lower than the current number of contract workers, and are now claiming foul play.
According to Shoeib, approximately a million consumers used EDL’s services in 2010, and the company had around 5,000 employees. Four years later, the number of consumers has increased by around 500,000, while the number of employees was cut to less than 2,000.
“This makes absolutely no sense,” he said of EDL’s appraisal that it needs less than half of the 1,800 contract workers. “This is how we know that a dirty game is being played.”
Shoeib accused EDL of working in the interest of the private companies that employ contract workers, saying if EDL hires all the contract technicians, these companies will have no one left.
“There is some kind of conspiracy going on at the executive level at the institution, while the state and the citizens are paying for it,” he said.
The workers at Wednesday’s protest, which was subdued compared to others this week, expressed frustration that their message was being overshadowed by their methods after they received criticism for blocking roads and burning tires.
Traffic along Charles Helou highway continued normally as the workers shared a bottle of cold water under the scorching sun, eventually deciding against pitching tents on EDL property.
“The people do not know what our cause is,” Shoeib said. “When more than 1,500 workers are begging for their rights and the people do not support them, it’s because of the wrong media focus.”
EDL’s director general Kamal Hayek is expected to hold a news conference at the Zouk Power Plant Thursday at noon to discuss an array of issues including contract workers and power outages.