ZOUK MOSBEH, Lebanon: Electricite du Liban contract workers’ takeover of the state-run company’s headquarters in Beirut pushed forward negotiations between the Free Patriotic Movement and Speaker Nabih Berri Tuesday, as parts of Beirut were hit with partial blackouts.
Senior EDL officials, who were denied entrance to the company’s premises in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael Monday, announced they are ready to give contract workers full-time employment at EDL when Parliament’s secretariat approves the draft law.
Following the takeover, the EDL administration warned that the country was facing an imminent nationwide blackout if contract workers did not back down.
Partial blackouts were experienced in Beirut’s Ashrafieh and Hamra neighborhoods. Residents of several greater Beirut neighborhoods blocked roads with burning tires in protest against the power cuts.
Commenting on the crisis and the threats to the electricity sector, March 14 officials accused the company of intentionally cutting off power in Ashrafieh.
On the other side of the divide, FPM leader Michel Aoun, who has opposed the contract workers’ demands for full-time employment, said the crisis has reached its end. “For us, this crisis has already been resolved,” Aoun told reporters without elaborating further.
Sources close to the FPM told The Daily Star that after the parliament’s secretariat approves the draft law, lawmakers who oppose it will propose amendments they feel are necessary.
But the standoff between Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, who is an FPM official, and EDL contract workers has escalated in recent days, and neither side seems willing to back down from their terms.
Admitting a conflict does exist between Amal Movement, which backs the contract workers’ demands, and the FPM, Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said his party is working tirelessly to reconcile the rival groups in the Cabinet and called on the government to work harder to reach a resolution.
“Hezbollah is making efforts day and night to reach a reconciliation within the majority, but if we remain divided we cannot reach a solution” said Qassem.
Late Tuesday evening, contract workers were still occupying the EDL offices in Mar Mikhael, and contract workers’ committee head Lubnan Makhoul said the sit-in will continue as there is no agreement in sight.
Bassil argues that the striking contract workers no longer work for the EDL and are rather employed by the service-providing companies it has recently hired.
Supported by Berri and other parties within the March 8 coalition, the contract workers say they are entitled to a full-time employment at EDL after working for the company for a decade or more.
Trapped between the Energy Ministry and the contract workers, EDL officials have warned of a total collapse of the electricity sector.
In Zouk Mosbeh, where many EDL officials relocated since Monday’s closure of EDL’s headquarters, Hayek blamed the contract workers’ sit-in for the outages.
“Lebanese should know that the National Control Center located on the ninth floor of EDL headquarters in Mar Mikhael is now abandoned like the rest of the building, and any malfunction in the power rationing program would be left unattended,” Hayek said.
“This means that we are heading toward a dangerous period, power blackouts could take place in the entire country, and we won’t be able to fix it from here.”
Hayek was speaking in a news conference at EDL offices in Zouk Mosbeh, which stands only meters away from the country’s largest power plants. Despite the proximity, the building’s elevator was out of service due to power problems.
Hayek criticized the contract workers’ sit-in and said it has now become a violent movement. “A peaceful and a civilized strike doesn’t close off the gates of the company with metal chains and won’t jeopardize the work of other employees,” said the senior official, who also blamed political bickering for the crisis.
“We ask you [government] to keep us out of your political bickering.”
In June, the contracts of the demonstrating contract workers with the EDL ended and according to a Cabinet decision, the workers now work for three private service providers.
Officials within the opposition accused EDL and Bassil of holding Ashrafieh hostage in the ongoing political wrangling.
“We warn against holding the region hostage to the political and labor conflict and playing with the security of thousands of people,” Beirut MP Michel Pharaon said in a statement in the afternoon.
Pharaon said that the recent electricity problems are an attempt to terrorize people through blackouts. “Either this crisis is solved or let Bassil resign because only he and Israel threaten to cut off our power,” Pharaon added.
The unplanned power cuts have also resulted in a water cuts in some areas in Ashrafieh in the past 24 hours.
“We were informed that maintenance teams of EDL were available to carry out repairs but no one asked them to intervene and fix the problem,” Pharaon then added.
When asked by The Daily Star whether EDL had refused to carry out repairs in Ashrafieh, senior EDL officials refused to comment on the matter.
For its part, the Future Movement called on Prime Minister Najib Mikati to resign because the Cabinet has failed to address the problems facing the country.
“The most recent threatening issue is what happened yesterday at Electricite du Liban due to the standoff between contract workers and the administration amid a complete absence of the energy minister and due to the militia logic this government has adopted,” the Future Movement said in a statement following its weekly meeting.
Ramgavar Party head Harout Yerganian called Tuesday for the resignation of Bassil over his poor performance at the ministry and handling of the Electricite du Liban contract workers affair.
“The government that flounders in its political and developmental tracks cannot hide its failure to provide the people’s everyday needs, and the best evidence of this is the manner in which Energy Minister has dealt with resolving the case of the [EDL] contract workers,” Yerganian said in a statement.
Yerganian described Bassil as suffering from “schizophrenia,” citing the minister’s calls for protests against power cuts, “in other words protests against himself.”