Politicians and union leaders are preparing for negotiations to defuse the crisis at Middle East Airlines, as indications grew over the weekend that the company was considering filing for bankruptcy.
Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s two-day official trip to Cairo on Monday, according to a General Labor Confederation official, will put the issue “on hold” for 48 hours, buying time for both sides to hammer out a solution.
After an emergency meeting of MEA’s board of directors and Central Bank officials Sunday, the company released a statement saying that if the dismissal plan is not implemented by the end of the month, MEA “will be no longer able to carry out its operations and will go before the competent court to request MEA’s inability to pay, according to the Commercial Code.”
“This is an extremely serious and realistic step, based on purely legal, financial and economic considerations,” the statement added.
The company outlined a series of steps it had taken in recent years to enhance employees’ salary and benefits status, resulting in a “very lucrative” compensation plan offered to the more than 1,400 workers facing dismissal.
The government seems to be adamant about enforcing the restructuring plan, and the banner headline in Hariri’s Al-Mustaqbal newspaper on Sunday maintained that MEA was “preparing to declare bankruptcy,” which could mean little compensation for the company’s entire 4,000-strong workforce.
A GLC official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that with MEA lacking any assets because it did leased its nine planes instead of owning them, the bankruptcy option could spell disaster: “What assets is MEA going to present to a bankruptcy court?” the official asked. “Its furniture?”
GLC president Ghassan Ghosn, who arrived Saturday from Geneva after participating in International Labor Organization conference, said the weekend’s meetings and statements meant that intense negotiations could produce a solution by week’s end, when the deadlines expire.
“I see a positive step in the MEA statement (Sunday),” Ghosn told The Daily Star. “We can solve crises in five days, if there’s a will to do so … It’s the beginning of dialogue.”
He insisted that the issue involved the future of the company, and not the compensation package being offered.
Ghosn will be on hand for Monday’s protest at Beirut International Airport, where security personnel have erected iron barricades to deal with a possible repeat of last week’s angry protests by workers.
“The ISF shouldn’t be at the airport,” Ghosn said. “No one should turn the airport in to a war zone. We’re going to hold a civilized protest.”
Meanwhile, GLC vice-president Bassam Tleis vowed that the group would not drop its backing of MEA unions and said it rejected seeing the national carrier’s liquidation. He told The Daily Star that “the issue will be held up for a few days, until Hariri returns from Egypt.”
Tleis, an Amal Movement official, dismissed the idea that the meeting of MEA’s board and the Central Bank was decisive for the company’s future.
“Do you believe that there’s such a thing as an MEA board of directors?” he asked sarcastically. “There’s a (government) employee named Mohammed Hout (the MEA chairman), and the Central Bank. Everything depends on Hariri.”
Tleis said the GLC did not reject restructuring but rejected dismissals or bankruptcy.
“As long as everyone foots the bill, administration and employees; but not the staff by themselves,” he said.
Hussein Abbas, who heads MEA’s employees union, told LBCI on Sunday that his group had consulted lawyers, who told them that the company’s enforcing its restructuring plans could not be implemented legally.
Asked if employees would again try to prevent Hout from entering his office at the airport, Abbas said: “Well, we might all lie on the ground, and he’ll have to walk over us. But we’re not demagogues, as it’s being said. We’re not going to threaten anyone.”