Lebanon’s labor movement gets back to business

from Your Middle East..

May 20, 2013, By Marina Chamma

ACTIVISM:  Having missed out on the so-called Arab Spring, will Lebanon finally jump on the bandwagon of regional change through its labor movement?

Since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, successive Lebanese governments, backed by the Syrian occupation forces, effectively managed to paralyze labor activity in the country. Whether through directly threatening outspoken labor leaders or manipulating the membership and workings of the officially recognized sole representative of workers – the Confédération Générale des Travailleurs au Liban (CGTL) or General Confederation of Lebanese Workers – the labor movement became a mere political tool far from demanding the protection of rights, improved working conditions and deserved pay raise for an increasingly impoverished segment of the population.

It has only been in the last two years that a flurry of union activity has awakened this vital segment of the population from its slumber. And the government, businesses and the population at large has taken notice. In the summer of 2012, public utility Electricité du Liban (EDL)’s contractual employees staged a 3-month sit-in to demand fair employment opportunities after three private service providers were contracted by EDL to handle power distribution, maintenance and bill collection.

Locally-based supermarket Spinneys’ refusal to give employees their rightful raise, based on the official increase in the minimum wage in January 2012, and improve working conditions encouraged workers to form a union and formalize their fight with the supermarket’s management in July 2012. Ill-treatment and discrimination of employees for union activity persists. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has accused Spinneys’ management of violating rights and union freedoms. Spinneys employees’ struggles captured the attention of local civil society activists and high profile figures such as former Labor Minister Charbel Nahas. Nahas has been sued by now-fired Spinneys CEO Michael Wright for defamation for speaking up against Wrights’ illegal practices against his employees.

Moreover, employees of Lebanon’s leading banking sector have also begun taking to the streets demanding amendments of their collective contract. With local commercial bank assets about three and a half times the size of the economy and having recorded around $1.6 billion in profits in 2012, it is only understandable for
employees to demand better wages and conditions.

Yet nothing quite revived labor activity in Lebanon like the Union Coordination Committees (UCC). Frustrated with the CGTL’s inaction in pressuring the government to enact an amended salary scale, rumors of corruption within its ranks, as well as CGTL leaderships’ collusion with so-called local economic associations (representatives of big businesses), the UCC made the unilateral decision to take up labor demands and fight for them on its own. After months of sporadic demonstrations, the UCC – a grouping of public and private teachers as well as civil servants – announced an open-ended strike demanding the government send its promised salary scale to parliament.

The strike lasted four weeks ending on March 25 2013, having paralyzed public and private education, as well as public administration services. Hanna Gharib, head of the UCC and of the public secondary school teachers’ union, along with Nehmeh Mahfoud, head of the private school teachers union, emerged as the quintessential labor union leaders Lebanon had been long searching for. With unlimited passion and courage, Gharib and Mahfoud not only fought for labor rights, they also articulated people’s frustrations against the system as a whole: a state that has ignored the most basic needs of its people for far too long, widespread corruption, lack of decent public services, unequal economic development, disregard to people’s health and welfare, and a political class having poisoned the country with hatred and confessionalism solely with their own personal interests in mind.

The UCC’s strike ended when then-Prime Minister Najib Mikati agreed to send the proposed salary scale to parliament. After Mikati’s resignation, a new PM-designate unable to form a cabinet and ongoing bickering to pass an electoral law has delayed the proposal’s arrival to parliament. The UCC has once again threatened to take to the streets to see this proposal through.

The recent revival of Lebanon’s labor movement may not be the long-awaited spark leading to meaningful change in the country, but it certainly won’t harm in the long and winding road to change. With greater awareness of the challenges faced by workers and a movement that has become greater than just better pay, the labor movement will become a force to be reckoned with in the years to come because it is certainly here to stay.

Link to the article: http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/features/lebanons-labor-movement-gets-back-to-business_15183

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One comment on “Lebanon’s labor movement gets back to business

  1. Zal Fa says:

    I am pleased to see that the ongoing struggle for labor rights within the Spinneys supermarket chain in Lebanon (between employees and management), and the struggle for freedom of speech around it (also between Spinneys management and civil society activists) are mentioned in this article.

    Spinneys is Lebanon’s version of Wall-Mart. It is a rightful cause that needs to be brought to light.

    Spinneys’ supermarket chain in Lebanon is currently majority-owned by Dubai private equity firm “Abraaj Group” (formerly known as “Abraaj Capital”). Ironically, just a few days ago, the Chief Founder and Group Chief Executive of Dubai private equity firm “Abraaj Group”, Mr Arif Naqvi, received the 2013 Oslo Business for Peace Award at a ceremony in the Oslo City Hall, Norway on May 15, 2013.

    We trust that such award is based on Mr Naqvi and the Oslo Business Peace Award
    Committee’ ignorance of the attacks of Spinneys CEO on employee’s labor rights and
    citizens’ civil rights happening at Spinneys in Lebanon.

    The rights struggle at Spinneys has been ongoing for a year now with many
    developments. The International Labour Organization office in Geneva has issued
    a letter in this regard and many legal cases are on. The UNI Global Union also
    issued a solidarity message to Spinneys union in light of its management’s violations.

    Below is a glimpse into the struggle, you will find a full description of the
    case, the timeline of violations as well as press cuts on the following website:
    http://spinneysceoagainstfreedoms.com

    After Violating Employees’ Freedom of Forming a Union, Spinneys (Abraaj Group) CEO
    Now Violates Citizens’ Freedom of Opinion and Speech and Electronic Freedoms

    At first, the establishment of the Workers union was triggered by the
    non-enforcement of wage correction decree and the absence of social protection
    for hundreds of workers. However, many who joined the union, and particularly
    its leadership, paid a high price for their audacity in demanding the company
    comply with the law.

    Violations of Employees’ Freedom of Forming a Union

    1- Dismissal of union founders
    2- Physical assault on unionists
    3- Intimidation squad
    4- Internal investigation and detention
    5- Threats of dismissal
    6- Punitive modification of work conditions
    7- Isolation of unionists
    8- Forced declination of rights to join the union
    9- Coerced withdrawal from union
    10- Intimidation of potential unionists
    11- Forced declination of rights to wage increase

    Violations of Citizens’ Freedom of Expression and Electronic Freedoms
    1- Online spying and monitoring of social media activity
    2- Prevent the distribution newspapers
    3- Silencing the media
    4- Silencing Facebook activists
    5- Defamation of unionists and activists on Facebook
    6- Legal actions against Facebook activists
    7- Trial against Former minister of Labor

    More on the subject: Website: http://spinneysceoagainstfreedoms.com
    (including timeline, and press cuts, and visuals)

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