BEIRUT: Electricite du Liban welcomed Friday the decision by contract workers to call off a 95-day sit-in at the company’s headquarters, ending a standoff that threatened a nationwide power blackout. The company assured the Lebanese that power rationing would be normalized in the next few days.
The settlement ending the three-month sit-in paves the way for the elimination of power failures and restoration of rationing to pre-strike levels, officials told The Daily Star.
“We expect to complete most repairs in one or two weeks,” said Fady Abou Jaoude, general manager of Butec Utility Services – one of three service providers hired by EDL.
The repairs will eliminate random power cuts that have occurred all over Lebanon during the past months and restore the situation to normal, he said.
“But we should not expect the power supply to increase because electricity distribution and production are unrelated functions,” he added.
Under the deal ending the strike, the three private companies are expected to kick start their work, which includes managing EDL’s electricity distribution, repairs and network upgrades.
While around one-third of part-time workers have already signed contracts with the three service providers, Abou Jaoude said the remaining workforce would have the choice on whether to do so or not.
“We hope a majority [of contract workers] will now sign employment contracts to be able to finalize repairs and resume bill collection as soon as possible,” he said, pointing out this would not stand in the way of full employment at EDL for contract workers who later pass employment exams.
According to Abou Jaoude, the service providers have agreed to pay three months worth of delayed salaries to the contract workers as part of the deal.
Asked if customers would be expected to pay the due bills in a lump sum, Abou Jaoude said that the money owed would be collected in installments.
“In the first phase, we will collect older bills dating back to January and February,” he said, adding: “A method to collect the other bills in two or three payments will be discussed later. But customers will not be expected to pay all the delayed bills at once.”
Electricity supply deteriorated across Lebanon to unprecedented levels over the past months due to the standoff at EDL.
In addition to programmed rationing, random blackouts became endemic even in Beirut, where power outages did not usually exceed three hours a day before the crisis erupted.
An Energy Ministry source also told The Daily Star that significant improvements are due once EDL staff move back to the Beirut headquarters, where vital equipment and control rooms are located. The source said regaining access to the National Central Control Center, located in Mar Mikhael, was vital to the company’s ability to conduct repairs on the grid.
“Lacking access to the control center meant the company had been blind and unable to pinpoint where power failures were happening,” said the source, who refused to be identified to the media.
Marie Tawq, an EDL spokesperson, said the company had yet to gain full access to the building. She said once EDL takes the building back, which is expected to happen Saturday, the service providers will be able to conduct repairs and gradually improve power distribution across the country.
But Tawq admitted that the discrepancy between electricity production and demand, particularly in summer months, would still render the company unable to slash rationing.
In a news conference held Friday, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil said power supply would start improving in two months, when Turkish power-leasing ships are due to arrive.
“[We have] two hard months this summer. Then electricity supply will start improving once it is [made available] from various sources,” he told reporters.
In addition to the accumulation of unaddressed breakdowns, an unprecedented cash flow problem has dealt a blow to electricity supply, both Abou Jaoude and Tawq said.
“Since February EDL has not collected any bills. This is also among the most important factors behind the deterioration in power supply,” Abou Jaoude said.
The Energy Ministry source echoed Abou Jaoude, adding the resumption of bill collection would provide EDL with the funds necessary to continue importing electricity from Syria, allowing for some improvement in power supply.
The contract workers’ decision to end their sit-in followed a six-point agreement between the Free Patriotic Movement and Speaker Nabih Berri.
Shortly after the head of the Labor Confederation, Ghassan Ghosn, announced the six-point compromise agreement, jubilant contract workers celebrated with fireworks and chants in support of Berri.
The state-run company’s gates, which had been locked with metal chains, were reopened Friday when Hezbollah and Amal Movement officials accompanied Ghosn to the EDL in Mar Mikhael.
The move was not immediately universally welcomed by the contract workers – some feared the decision was mere rhetoric and would not actually offer them anything concrete.
But Hezbollah and Amal officials convinced them that a follow-up committee would oversee the implementation of the six-point agreement.
According to sources who took part in the negotiations, the contract workers, numbering around 2,000, won a pledge by politicians to receive retirement pensions from EDL. Many of the workers have been employed by the company for more than 15 years without benefiting from the National Social Security Fund.
The agreement also calls for ensuring the right of all contract workers to take the EDL examination in order to qualify for full-time employment; to receive a retirement pension if they fail the exam and wish to quit; and to be awarded the retrospective payment of their salaries for the past three months.
Bassil, who has faced the demands of the contract workers for the past few months, welcomed the compromise and said it was a victory for the rule of law and state institutions.
“There are no losers and victors out of this compromise, the sole winner is the state institution that forces this political agreement which we all know who took part in,” said Bassil in a news conference at the ministry Friday.
Bassil had argued that all part-time workers’ contracts with the EDL ended in June and they were asked to sign new contracts with three private service providing companies tasked by the EDL.