BEIRUT: Electricite du Liban warned Monday that the country could face a nationwide blackout if contract workers do not end their “takeover” of the state-run company’s headquarters in Beirut.
In an unprecedented move, EDL contract workers blocked off the company’s offices in Mar Mikhail and called for closing other EDL headquarters across Lebanon. They vowed to continue shutting down headquarters until their demand to become full-time employees is met.
According to a statement from the EDL board of directors, the company was “forcibly shut down because of the takeover by some contract workers and bill collectors,” warning that the “measures taken by the contract workers would lead to an electricity blackout in all of Lebanon in the coming hours.”
The board issued the statement after holding a meeting at the Zouk power plant north of Beirut, where it moved its headquarters after being unable to enter the Mar Mikhail offices closed off by contract employees.
EDL said it would only consider the “takeover” as over when the premises “have been evacuated and the security situation restored.”
It said that employees manning the National Control Center in the Mar Mikhail headquarters – which controls electricity distribution across Lebanon – were evacuated after being trapped inside, leaving no one to run the center.
EDL’s board of directors will hold a news conference Tuesday at 1 p.m. at the Zouk power plant.
But Lubnan Makhoul, the head of EDL contract workers’ committee, said that EDL was making threats of a nationwide blackout in order to tarnish the reputation of contract workers and put them under pressure.
“We decided to close [EDL] headquarters [across the country] rather than power plants,” Makhoul told The Daily Star. “So why would the power go off? They make such threats so that people would think that we do not care for them,” he added.Makhoul said that EDL headquarters would remain closed until demands were met. “Tomorrow will be just like today.”
Contract workers resumed their sit-in at Beirut headquarters Monday, setting fire to several tires inside the building’s gates.
The protesters closed off all entrances to the premises with metal chains as EDL administration staff stood outside and tried to negotiate with the contract workers to allow them in. Employees tasked with coordinating hours of rationing electricity across the city were prevented from entering the building.
Angry staff members briefly blocked the road near EDL to protest the contract-workers’ actions before returning to their homes. Internal Security Forces deployed heavily near EDL premises.
The three-month strike by contract workers has resulted in blackouts in recent weeks in a number of areas in the capital.
Contract workers, who number more than 2,000, are demanding that they are paid their salaries, which they haven’t received in over three months, and that they become full-time employees.
Parliament endorsed in early July a draft law making them full-time employees. But the law, supported by Speaker Nabih Berri, outraged his ally, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun. Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, believes only a little more than 700 contract-workers should become full-time employees after a probation period of three months. Bassil argues that EDL does not need all the contract workers to become full-time employees.
EDL has said that it will only pay the May salaries of contract workers, arguing that they should begin working for private service providers by June 2.
The escalation of the workers’ protest came in response to EDL announcing that private-service providers would begin making repairs Monday and that bill collections would resume.
Bill collection has been on hold for the past five months in many parts of Lebanon, as contract workers used to do the job.
A source close to Berri told The Daily Star Monday that earlier efforts by Hezbollah and Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh are still ongoing to mediate a solution between Berri and Aoun. “They are working on a solution acceptable to both sides.”
“Contract workers have not received their salaries for the past four months and they will by no means stop action,” he added.
The source said that Berri would support any agreement reached between Bassil and contract employees.
Speaking at the beginning of a Cabinet session at Baabda Palace, Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a political aide to Berri, said the demands of contract employees can only be addressed through dialogue, citing the example of ongoing talks between Education Minister Hasan Diab and teachers demanding a salary raise.
Ghassan Ghosn, head of the General Labor Confederation, voiced his support for the demands of contract employees.
Addressing contract workers at EDL headquarters after holding talks with members of the contract workers’ committee, Ghosn said: “The law to employ you has been endorsed [by Parliament] and measures to implement it should take place.”
“It is unacceptable that a worker who receives a daily wage of LL30,000 and makes sacrifices to earn this amount cannot afford visiting a physician,” he said, referring to the plight of contract workers who are not enrolled at the National Social Security Fund. “This is injustice.”
Ghosn said there would be no negotiations until contract workers were paid their salaries for recent months.
The National News Agency reported that EDL contract workers in Akkar held a symbolic sit-in, closing the Abdeh roundabout for a short while. In addition to their demands to become full-time employees, contract workers, joined by other locals, protested that Akkar receives only five hours of power each day.
In protest against the contract workers’ actions preventing EDL staff from entering the premises, a number of members of the executive council of the EDL full-time employees union said they would suspend their participation in the council until the union once again defends the dignity of employees.