BEIRUT: State-contracted waste collection service RAMCO has had to slash operations by half due to delayed payments and the worsening fuel crisis, causing mounting piles of trash and a rotting miasma to linger in Beirut.
“As a company we’ve reached a point of total collapse in our operations due to the economic crisis and the pound to dollar exchange rates. It’s crippled our ability to work in Beirut and the other areas we cover, like Metn and Kesrouan,” RAMCO director Walid Bou Saad told The Daily Star. “Our contract is in dollars but today we’re being paid by checks and our costs have risen 1,200 percent for operation and maintenance, and 500 percent for salaries.
“We increased the salaries for our employees but it’s still not enough to keep them working with us, so we’ve had shortage of workers,” he added. “We’ve also not been paid our financial budgets [by the government]. The banks can’t give us overdraft anymore and ... we’ve had major delays from the government in our payments, which means we then can’t pay our workers, so many quit.”
In August, RAMCO warned that their collection service was no longer able to operate at full capacity. They asked citizens to avoid disposing of trash in the mornings and only leave it in the designated containers between 3 p.m. and 5 a.m., to avoid buildup.
“It’s not only us; every company in Lebanon is suffering the same issues and every ministry in Lebanon has become paralyzed. We’re still propped up until today but we’re on the edge,” Bou Saad said. “We appealed to the Beirut Municipality four months ago to help us keep going – we don’t enjoy having waste piling up on the streets or any area we service, as it helps no one and it’s the people that are paying the price.
“Four months have passed and no one did anything. We met with them again a month ago and still nothing. We met with the mayor in mid-August and he was open to helping but said that it’s out of his hands and requires a Municipal Council approval and no one knows what their situation is,” he added. “Our problems can be solved by the municipality – we’re not asking for charity; it’s all in the contract and these are our rights. I don’t know how much longer we can last – at the end of this month, if money doesn’t come into the account, I can’t pay the workers and they will leave.”
Bou Saad noted that even if money was released, the method of using checks, deposited at the LL3,000 rate, was crippling their ability to work and would cause a repletion of the problem within a few months.
“If I say I need $10 million and they’re given as a check, they become $1.5 million,” he said. “If we get checks, we can close some of our debts to the banks, but we can’t withdraw it as cash – we can only take out $2,000 a month.
“I’m having to turn it into other checks and exchange it on the black market at the LL3,000 rate,” he added. “I’m covering 17,000 for every $1 from my own pocket and I can no longer cover. We need the municipality to wake up to this reality.”
While meetings with Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud have been positive, results have been unforthcoming. Bou Saad says the governor is working on a plan to help them but that matters are out of his hand, needing approval from the Municipal Council.
Although the payments for the last three months have been approved, the actual payout has been stalled because of an “administrative issue.”
“We have money owned to use by the municipality as far back as 2018 and every time we talk about it they say, 'Of course, it’s your right' but we see nothing,” Bou Saad said. “What kind of administrative issue takes three months? This is not an answer to give, on an approved payment, which has been sitting ignored for three months.
“The municipality needs to pay attention to this problem and not only when the disaster strikes they run to catch up, or when we temporarily scramble to get loans and improve the situation they pretend to forget about the problem,” he added. “If one of my workers leaves, to get another worker and teach and train them takes two months. It’s not a game where a worker who has been with me for years, knows all of Beirut and can drive the trucks, leaves.”
Technical issues have also stalled collection services, as without fresh currency they are unable to maintain about 120 trucks that require replacement parts from abroad. Unless the payments are made, the trucks will continue to deteriorate and more waste will litter the streets.
“I’d have to work the whole month to afford one or two parts. We’ve been dismantling trucks not in use to patch up other trucks,” he said. “Coupled with the increased price of fuel, our workers are having trouble getting to work but also fueling the trucks to collect the waste.
“When we started this contract the price of fuel was LL18,000 and now it’s LL100,000,” he added. “There is a part of the contract that says should the price of fuel change, the budget will reflect that, but the municipality is ignoring this even though we’ve told them this. This issue can’t be left because the longer we leave it, the more it costs to fix it.”