BEIRUT: Striking contract workers at one of Electricite du Liban’s three service providers said they were ready for a crackdown by their employer Monday, insisting they would not back down and dismissing the threat of being fired for taking too many days off work.“For us this doesn’t matter anymore,” the workers’ spokesman Ahmad Shoeib told The Daily Star over the weekend.
“We will not go back now no matter what they will do.”
Along with approximately 800 of some 2,000 strikers, Shoeib is employed by the National Electric Utility, a Debbas Group subsidiary that carries out maintenance work for EDL in south Lebanon and the southern part of Mount Lebanon. After two weeks of protests – including burning tires, blocking roads and barring employees from entering the EDL headquarters in Mar Mikhael – NEU warned the workers in a statement Thursday to go back to work Monday or face strict measures.
“NEU Company ... asks all of its employees in the third district to come to work on Aug. 28, 2015,” the statement said. “Anyone who fails to show up without a legitimate excuse will face procedures based on Article 74 in the Lebanese Labor Law.”
According to the Labor Law, the employer has the right to dismiss workers if they are absent for 15 days in a single year or seven consecutive days without a legitimate excuse.
Although initially blasé about NEU’s statement, Shoeib later argued that NEU workers had the right to use their 2014 annual vacation starting this August, which would count as legitimate time at work.
“None of the workers has taken his annual leave yet, and many of us have that of the two consecutive years accumulated,” Shoeib explained, adding that he himself had 30 days before he would run out of paid leave days.
Some 2,000 contract workers have been observing a nationwide strike, demanding full-time employment for each and every one in line with a law passed by Parliament in April. EDL has so far only agreed to hire 897.
The contract workers – previously day laborers at EDL – were hired by three different private firms in 2012 as part of a decision by the electricity company to outsource its technical services for four years.
Although they currently enjoy good working conditions at the companies, the workers’ main fear is that after the four-year contract expires, they will go back to being day laborers with EDL, a position that for decades has deprived them of any insurance or labor benefits.
Asked about what measures NEU might take next week, Shoeib said that he predicted the company might start firing the leaders of the workers’ movement. “They may sack the three or four leaders and thus scare the others and force them into going back to work,” he said.
The three key leaders of the workers union, Shoeib, Bilal Bajou and union head Lebnan Makhoul, all work at NEU, giving the company an advantage in the confrontation.
The other two private companies involved – BUTEC Utility Services (BUS) and KVA – have taken a significantly softer stance, despite calls from EDL for the service providers to take responsibility for the unrest.
BUS’ general director Fadi Abou Jaoudeh asked workers early last week to “commit to the labor law and work ethics,” and to not engage in any actions of disruption or vandalism in the public facilities, but has not threatened any punitive action.
BUS is the least involved in the controversy, Shoeib said, because very few of its workers are still striking.
“Most of them have submitted to the company’s threats and gone back to work for fear of losing their jobs,” he said. “We lost the BUS battle at the very beginning.”
KVA has called on its workers to avoid “any illegal actions,” specifying “closing the offices of Electricite Du Liban” as one of them. KVA workers consider this company to be the most supportive of their cause, Shoeib said, because it has distanced itself from the conflict and avoided pressuring employees.
Meanwhile, many Lebanese citizens have started experiencing increased electricity cuts in the last few days.
“In light of the closure of the central building ... by some contract workers,” EDL said in a statement Sunday, “the technical teams are unable to repair the dysfunctions emerging on the network.”
Striking contract workers have blocked EDL’s facilities since Aug. 9, preventing any employees from entering the offices and only allowing access to the “coordination and operations” employees, who are directly responsible for controlling the electricity supply.
But Bajou, one of the union’s leaders, told The Daily Star that no technician had yet asked to enter to fix the problems, stressing that “the [striking] workers will allow any repairs that are necessary to bring back electricity supply to normal.”
Talking by phone to The Daily Star, a top EDL executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, would not be drawn on whether any technicians had been sent to fix the network. “The question is about EDL’s dignity,” he said. “And we will not negotiate with the workers as long as they occupy the building.”