BEIRUT: Parliament’s joint committees passed a draft law Thursday allowing all Electricite du Liban contract workers to take examinations that would give them the chance to become full-time employees, driving a wedge through the March 8 coalition.
While MPs from Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement walked out of the session in protest of the draft law, their allies in Hezbollah and Amal endorsed the bill.
Addressing reporters later Thursday at Aoun’s residence in Rabieh, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil said that Amal and Hezbollah MPs should clarify their stances in Parliament, quipping that “[Hezbollah’s] weapons” were used to secure public sector employment.
The energy minister wants 700 contract workers, out of an estimated 2,500, to sit for the exam.
Under his proposal, the rest would become three-month trial employees at private sector service providers.
“Ministers from Amal, Hezbollah and the Progressive Socialist Party have endorsed my proposal three times in the Cabinet,” he said, questioning if the March 8 coalition truly enjoys a majority in the government. “This [what happened today] poses several questions.”
Convening under Deputy Speaker Farid Makari, Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee, Administration and Justice Committee and Public Works, Transport, Energy and Water Committee all passed the draft law after examining a report by a subcommittee from the joint parliamentary committees.
Under the draft law, all EDL contract workers younger than 58 can take the examination, which will be administered by the Civil Service Council.
The decision was met with celebration by contract workers gathered at EDL headquarters in the Beirut neighborhood of Mar Mikhail, who were eagerly awaiting the session’s outcome.
The draft law, which has yet to be endorsed by Parliament, is expected to resolve more than two months of protest and open-ended strikes that left EDL struggling to conduct vital repairs and collect bills.
Bassil said that nine March 14 MPs and MP Ayoub Humayed from Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement had previously promised all EDL workers that they could become full-time employees, and that this was their motivation for signing the draft law.
He said the move would encourage workers to escalate protests and dictate the terms of their own employment.
“By [passing] this, we are telling workers that you get employed by being affiliated with a [political] leader.”
He said that given that the current National Dialogue session is addressing Hezbollah’s weapons, “let us discuss how arms are used for employment in the public sector.”
Dissatisfied by the vote, MPs from the FPM withdrew from the session in a bid to break the quorum.
But their attempt failed after Hezbollah and Amal refused to follow suit, and the remaining majority voted for all 2,500 workers to take the examination.
During the same news conference, Metn MP Ibrahim Kanaan said that the FPM MPs withdrew from the session because the subcommittee violated the constitution in preventing Bassil from bringing his aides to its meetings.
“Article 63 of the Constitution stipulates that he has the right to seek the help of anyone he wants,” Kanaan said.
Amal and Hezbollah’s stance was the outcome of an agreement reached in recent days with the March 14 coalition to support opening the examinations to all 2,500 contract workers.
“Did you know that 2,500 workers amount to one third of [all] public sector employees apart from the policy and education [ministry] employees?” Bassil asked.
Bassil’s original proposal raised fears that if implemented, EDL workers employed by private sector service providers would be fired at the end of the three-month probation period, at which point Bassil would push for his supporters to be hired.
Sources told The Daily Star that FPM officials are irritated that Berri has not supported Bassil’s proposal or coordinated his stance with the party.
But sources close to Berri said that in a meeting before the session, Berri failed to convince Bassil to accept allowing all workers to take the test.
Also, FMP MPs were upset that Christian MPs in the joint committees did not heed Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai’s reported call for them to reject allowing all of the 2,500 contract workers to take the exams.
Rai fears that all workers becoming full-time employees will disrupt sectarian balance in the public sector, as the bulk of contract workers are Muslims.
But Bassil said that maintaining sectarian balance is not a concern for him when it comes to employment in the electricity sector.
Bassil questioned the decision to allow contract employees to sit for exams with no consideration for the needs of the state-run company.