BEIRUT: Energy Minister Arthur Nazarian Monday called on striking contract workers to end the “riots” and “militia activities,” warning of further electricity cuts due to the labor action and a possible clash with Electricite du Liban employees.
“What is happening today at Electricite du Liban is a clear assault on the law, the institution and the sovereignty of the Lebanese state,” Nazarian said in a news conference held at the ministry.
“Closing EDL and preventing employees and executives from entering their place of work and doing their jobs is a penal offense prohibited by the law,” he added.
Nazarian urged some 2,000 people employed by private service providers to “give up the riots because they do not bring any good, and they represent an occupation of EDL by affecting the company’s ability to function.”
He warned that if the security forces do not suppress what he called “the militia acts” of the workers, others might be forced to retaliate with similarly illegal actions.
Nazarian’s words echoed EDL’s statement Sunday in which the institution claimed the workers’ strike was preventing technicians from completing vital repairs at the state-owned utility company’s headquarters in Mar Mikhael, leading to more electricity cuts in Beirut.
“If the situation remains as is, it will be harder to ensure a stable electricity flow to the citizens,” he said.
But in a phone call with The Daily Star, Lebnan Makhoul, the head of the strikers’ union, refuted these claims, saying the faults in the network that were causing electricity cuts in Beirut were located outside the company’s headquarters.
Also present at the conference, former Labor Minister Salim Jreissati said the Parliament law passed in April that prompted EDL to decide how many people it wanted to employ – less than 900 of the 2,000 strikers – was the “fairest possible,” stressing that the law included many concessions for the sake of the contract workers.
He said employing all of the approximately 2,000 striking workers “violates the most basic legal rules” and stressed that Parliament’s law was clear on the matter.
Calling the protesters’ movement politicized, Jreissati advised unnamed politicians to “take their hands off the workers.”
“Do not encourage them to break the law, because the law shall only be modified by another [lawmaker], not by violence or riots in the streets.”
He urged workers to end the protests and warned that they would be punished by law if they continued. “Your crimes are witnessed, and what you are doing is not at all a strike that the relevant laws allow,” he said, stressing that “legal prosecution is definite.”
Speaking at the same conference as Nazarian, EDL Chairman Kamal Hayek stressed that the law protected everyone and called on the workers to “calm down,” describing their actions as “riots rather than righteous demonstrations.”
The conference came after 200 workers blocked all entrances to the EDL’s headquarters earlier Monday.
Security sources told The Daily Star the protesters sealed off all four entry points to the building in east Beirut, preventing employees from entering the premises. Some demonstrators burned tires, and one even tried to immolate himself.
The sources said a protester, identified as Amer Musa, sipped fuel and poured some on his body in an attempt to set himself on fire. But he stopped when he became nauseous after drinking fuel and was rushed to a nearby hospital.
Riot police deployed outside EDL stood guard and prevented any confrontation between the protesters and employees.
EDL called on striking workers to report to duty Monday. A similar call for attendance was issued by the service provider National Electric Utility, which warned its employees that they would face strict measures if they failed to show up for work.
In response to Jreissati’s speech, the workers released a statement questioning why he had been made the main speaker at the conference despite the presence of two more senior figures: the energy minister and EDL’s chairman.
The answer is likely the fact that Jreissati was the labor minister in the previous Cabinet when the service providers project was launched by then-Energy Minister Gebran Bassil.
Jreissati said Monday that he had been assigned the task of ensuring the contract workers received good job packages with the services providers.
Makhoul told The Daily Star that despite the broad demands of the workers, a realistic solution could be achieved if EDL’s administration suspends the memo limiting its employment needs to 897 and agrees to hold meetings with the workers and reconsider their decision.