Marina Chamma
Last updated: 20 May, 2013

Lebanon’s labor movement gets back to business

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.

Nothing quite revived labor activity in Lebanon like the Union Coordination Committees

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.

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