BEIRUT: The Interior Ministry has asked Electricite du Liban for 48 hours to end a strike by contract workers, EDL director general Kamal Hayek said Tuesday, as the issue reflected a long-simmering conflict between Speaker Nabih Berri and Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun.
Hayek also reiterated that the cash-strapped state-run company could not tolerate an open-ended strike by part-time workers that has disrupted EDL’s operations and worsened power supply throughout the country in sweltering weather.
“The Interior Minister [Marwan Charbel] asked for 48 hours so he could take the necessary measures to resolve the crisis. Following that, [if the crisis is not resolved], we will take our own measures,” Hayek told reporters, hinting that EDL staff might stage a mass walkout.
He spoke after a meeting with Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi and Charbel to discuss the issue of EDL contract workers who have been staging a strike for nearly three months to press their demands for full-time employment with the company.
The meeting took place at the Energy Ministry’s headquarters.
Lebanon’s state-run television Tele Liban said that Charbel had asked for 48 hours in order to hold contacts with Berri before taking an appropriate stance on ending the contract workers’ sit-in. The more than 2,000 striking workers are mostly supporters of Berri.
Tele Liban also reported that Bassil had asked Qortbawi, who belongs to Aoun’s bloc, to file lawsuits against the striking contract workers on charges of withholding money collected from subscribers.
EDL said in a statement Tuesday that contract workers who had handed over the bills and money collected from subscribers have been paid their salaries. EDL made a final appeal to contract workers who were still holding money collected from subscribers to hand them over to the company or else the firm would take legal measures against them.
Hayek said the striking bill collectors are holding more than $650,000 worth of electricity bills which they collected from subscribers.
Hayek said that the security and administrative situation at the company had become untenable, referring to the ongoing strike by EDL contract workers who on several occasions have disrupted work at the company. The strike has also prevented the company from collecting electricity bills from customers and carrying out maintenance work.
“The situation has become dangerous and the security situation should go back to normal,” Hayek said, adding that the company has lost control over one of the country’s most vital sectors.
The EDL head added that when the strike had been peaceful, he had supported the protesters’ demands for full-time employment at the company.
“But when it became accompanied by the use of force, we could no longer remain silent,” Hayek said.
Hayek warned Monday that Lebanon risked total blackout if the contract workers’ sit-in did not come to an end very soon. He added that the strike and occupation of the headquarters have dealt a severe blow to EDL’s operations across the country.
He also said that due to the financial losses suffered by the company as a result of the 80-day strike, it might not be able to pay employees their salaries for the month of August.
The contract workers are protesting the government’s delay in resolving their employment status as well as EDL’s failure to pay their salaries.
Parliament has endorsed a bill to employ the contract workers as full-time EDL employees but the draft legislation is awaiting the approval of Parliament’s Secretariat amid opposition by the three main Christian parties, Aoun’s FPM, the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb (Phalange) Party.
The three Christian parties argue that should EDL employ contract workers full-time without a proper regulatory mechanism, this would cause sectarian imbalance in the civil service.
In the first serious incident over the worsening EDL crisis, a scuffle broke out Monday night between contract workers and citizens opposing the closure of the company’s headquarters in Corniche al-Nahr. A number of demonstrators and part-time workers suffered minor injuries during an exchange of hurled rocks.
The contract workers, who pitched tents inside EDL’s headquarters in an attempt to press the government to make them full-time employees, threw stones at scores of citizens who were demanding that the strike end and allow full-time staff to resume work normally.
Riot police armed with batons and shields intervened to separate the angry crowds from the part-time workers who were entrenched inside the company’s compound.
Witnesses said that the demonstration had been organized by Aoun’s supporters and was joined by members of other Christian parties as counter to the part-time workers’ strike.
Part-time workers, mostly supporters of Berri, accuse Bassil of instigating the demonstration against them in a bid to show the public that the contractual staff is threatening the interests of the country.
The 80-day strike took a sectarian twist after the Christian parties said employing all of the part-time workers would create a sectarian and confessional imbalance because most of the contract workers are Muslims.
The issue of EDL contract workers has caused a rift between Aoun and his allies, Hezbollah and Berri’s Amal Movement. Aoun his MPs have criticized Hezbollah and Amal for supporting a controversial draft law in Parliament that would make EDL contract workers full-timers.
Meanwhile, about 200 people, including women and children, demonstrated outside Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s residence in Tripoli to protest severe power rationing in the northern city. They chanted slogans against Mikati’s government and demanded an improved power supply.
Security personnel guarding Mikati’s residence fired shots in the air in a bid to disperse the protesters, witnesses said. – With additional reporting by Dana Khraiche