Since 2011, the daily and contract workers of Électricité du Liban (EDL) have been staging demonstrations demanding full time employment in the EDL, citing a long history of grievances against the institution and its policies. In order to truly understand these grievances however, one must look past the history of the EDL and to the history of electricity in Lebanon.
Underneath the French Mandate, the first power-generation company in Lebanon, La Société des Tramways et de l’Éclairage de Beyrouth, was established in 1906. The company’s main function was to power the electric tramway system of Beirut, though it also provided electricity to a few individual residencies and enterprises. As the industrial revolution swept the world, electricity usage increased, along with greater options of public transportation. As so, the tramway began to lose importance and the company changed its name to Électricité de Beyrouth, reflecting the increasing commercial and capital value of electricity as it became a part of daily life.
Notably, Électricité de Beyrouth was the largest electricity company in Lebanon, having the greatest amount of infrastructural investment, power generation, and subscriber base. With this, it soon became an institute of power and wealth, though the institution struggled with unstable voltages, power outages, high prices and an overall, unstable and uneven proliferation of electricity. These characteristics allowed Électricité de Beyrouth to be targeted by protesters for high prices, low quality of service and poor working conditions throughout the colonial and early independence period. Moreover, the issue of electricity was often used by rival politicians and businessmen to advance their own separate political and corporate agendas, for example, to push the evacuation of foreign troops within Lebanon or rally supporters around a common cause.
In 1953, the government took control of Électricité de Beyrouth after massive protests campaign demanded the state to take immediate action to address the public’s electricity grievances. By 1954, Électricité de Beyrouth was established as a national entity and renamed Électricité du Liban (EDL). This in turn resulted in the creation of the Ministry of Energy and Water, further politicising the electricity issue while placing it within the stalemate which was, and still is, Lebanese bureaucracy. As so, lingering issues were exacerbated as new issues related to electricity were highlighted, especially that of poor working conditions.
In 1964, the Lebanese government formally monopolised the electric market and restricted the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity to its state owned enterprise.This meant that the public good of electricity was highly susceptible to political exploitation and corruption. This became particularly prevalent after the end of the civil war with the reshaping of the sectarian system within the Lebanese government in the early 1990s. In order to rehabilitate its grids and electricity networks after the war, the EDL was funded over $2 billion in the 1990s to boost its generation capacity. However, over $500 million was siphoned off to corrupt politicians, especially those aligned with the Syrian regime, through illegal kickbacks.
According to official services, in fact, 55% of EDL bills are not collected as political elites distribute electricity as a free good to their constituents. Furthermore, the EDL maintains a high amount of administrative officials who receive astronomically high salaries. These officials were employed through systems of clientelism and patronage and divert much of the money they earn to their affiliated politician. With this, it is easy to understand how EDL accumulated a massive deficit despite receiving almost $2 billion of support annually from the state treasury to cover electricity losses. With this, it is no surprise that EDL’s cost of electricity energy production is estimated to be the highest in the world while that EDL’s supply covers only two-thirds of a day, at best.
Workers Conditions and Demonstrations
EDL has around 2,300 daily workers who do not receive social security, pension, insurance, or other benefits. These workers are paid $530 monthly, while fully employed government workers, under the protection of labor laws, earn salaries between $1200 and $1300 monthly while also receiving labor benefits. Notably, daily workers are also prohibited from forming unions or striking. Because of this, the only form of representation available to them is through political parties. With this, in order to be promoted or find a better position within the company, daily workers often resort to seeking a wasta, or a connectional “in” from their political representative.
Despite discrepancies in treatment, daily workers have endured these poor working conditions for decades, citing their need for continuous work in Lebanon. This is so since even though EDL has rarely offered its daily workers full employment, the company does provide them with a source of constant employment; while daily workers contracts are short term, the continuity of work is not.
In 2011, to ensure the continuity of work without holding legal responsibility for the workers, including providing labor benefits ensured through the Lebanese labor laws, the EDL hired three private subcontractors. By doing so, the EDL was able to evade providing its workers with benefits such as health insurance, vacation time and paid transportation fees, among others. The subcontractors, namely KVA, BUS, and NEUC, then cycled daily workers every three months between one another, keeping them on probation and threatening mass layoffs by employing only the daily workers they needed. Studies at the time showed that only 30% of the workers were needed by the private Companies, however, meaning that 70% of the workers would become unemployed within three months.
As a result, the workers organized and elected a daily workers’ committee (DWC) to investigate whether their service at EDL earned them benefits in their current working conditions, or some other form of compensation. However, although stakeholders such as the EDL and the private subcontractors were questioned regarding daily workers’ fate, the workers received no answers. On May 2, 2012, the DWC commenced a strike against privatisation and for full time employment with benefits. The strike lasted for 94 days, the longest labor strike in Lebanese history. The strikes were immensely important as they crossed sectarian lines and united workers from different backgrounds and political parties.
During the strike, Minister of Energy and Water Gebran Bassil of the Free Patriotic Movement proposed a solution where 700 daily workers would become full time employees with benefits. These 700 workers would be chosen through civil service department exams. The DWC refused this “solution” as it would only employ less than 30% of daily workers and also place young graduates and applicants against experienced EDL workers who had worked at the company for decades. With this rejection, the Minister employed a sectarian and security rhetoric to delegitimise the strikers, even breaking up sit-ins by deploying Free Patriotic Movement infiltrators.
After 3 months of protests, a political agreement sponsored by Hezbollah, Amal, the Marada Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement was formed under the auspices of the General labor union. The agreement provided temporary employment to all daily-workers at the subcontractor companies and promised full-employment schedules for daily workers after the private companies’ contracts ended in 2016. This agreement was an obvious loss for the strikers who were beginning to be fragmented by their political affiliations and individual promises or work to select members of the DWC.
In August 2014, the DWC organised another long-run protest, composed of strikes, sit-ins, burning tires, and the occupation of EDL’s headquarters. This time, the round of protests was sparked by an announcement by the EDL stating that it would employ 897 of nearly 2,000 workers only. As protesters occupied the EDL headquarters, the company and government officials began to blame surplus power outages on the daily workers, although DWC representatives accused the government of having “intentional blackouts” to gain public support against the DWC and discourage their efforts.
In mid- December 2014, another political agreement was reached between EDL and political parties where EDL limited public competition in the civil service department exams for full employment so that the exams would be closed off to daily workers already operating in EDL. Despite this, the DWC continues to organise sporadic strikes and protests, even today, though none quite as long as those that took place in 2011 and 2014. In these demonstrations, the daily workers urge the government to fulfill their promises and integrate workers who passed the exams into EDL’s vacant positions, claiming that the EDL has enough positions to integrate all those in the DWC.
[Last updated in February 2016]