BEIRUT: Caretaker Labor Minister Salim Jreissati will meet Wednesday with a private service provider company after the latter sacked tens of electricity contract workers who blocked a main Beirut highway in protest of the company’s decision, leaving thousands of drivers stranded in their vehicles for hours.
The protesters, joined with fellow state-run Electricite Du Liban part-timers, 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.
Sixty two workers were sacked earlier this month from KVA, an electric distribution service provider contracting with EDL, after their contracts were terminated while 400 others are expected to face the same fate.
Angry and frustrated over their working conditions, one of the workers standing in the middle of the highway said the fate of 62 families hung in the balance, criticizing 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 worker shouted, surrounded by tens of the workers who were recently laid off.
A member of the contract workers committee told The Daily Star that the sacking of 62 employees was unfounded and that the main issue was between EDL and KVA.
According to Bilal Jaouk, EDL refused to pay KVA the whole amount for their service which amounted to $35 million. The state-run company reportedly only paid $7 million, prompting the private firm to expel the workers.
"We are always the victims here and KVA fired the workers because it knew we would take it to the streets and block roads thinking this would pressure the electricity company [EDL] to pay them,” Jaouk said.
He also said that the private company 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 demonstrated for nearly three months against the government’s decision to privatize its maintenance services.
The workers were to remain working at the private companies until Parliament passed a draft law to employ some of them at EDL. Others would be employed at the private company if they pass certain exams.
But the legislative branch has not been able to convene since then due to political deadlock.
Caretaker Labor Minister Salim Jreissati lashed out at KVA, calling on the company to return the workers.
"I call on KVA to go back on its decision immediately," Jreissati said in a news conference. "We will hold a meeting with KVA tomorrow [Wednesday] morning to discuss the situation."
“KVA said it no longer needed the workers and fired them,” he said, adding that KVA violated the so-called political agreement.
In a statement, KVA defended its decision to lay off the workers, saying the number of its 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 protesters suspended their protest hours later after sending a delegation which met with the labor minister, but warned they would resume demonstrations if KVA fails to return the workers.
Security forces deployed on the highway in an attempt to reopen the road, which led to a brief clash with the workers who insisted on the road closure.
A spokesperson for the protesters said that the quandary would not be solved until EDL provides workers with employment security through signing fixed contracts.