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No signs of a solution loom on the horizon for the escalating crisis between the Caretaker Minister of Telecommunications, Johnny Corm, and the unions of employees of the telecommunications companies in Lebanon, Alfa and Touch. So far, the Minister has refused to sign the new collective labor contract requested by the employees, arguing that given the current circumstances, the provisions of this contract would impose additional burdens on the two companies.

Employees are urging the Minister of Telecommunications to sign the employment contract as is, while Corm is trying to bolster state funds by cutting benefits, including withholding full salaries in dollars. It’s worth noting that Touch and Alfa deduct some expenses from cellular revenues, including employee salaries, before transferring the surplus to the ministry’s account as contributions to the Treasury from the cellular sector. Therefore, the Ministry views the employees’ insistence on receiving their full salaries in cash dollars as an almost extravagant demand.

Ministry sources confirm that Corm is unwavering in his refusal to negotiate with employees until the strike is unconditionally lifted. Meanwhile, the union representing employees and workers in companies operating in the cellular sector is pursuing the strike, awaiting the adjustment and full payment of salaries in fresh dollars, as well as the signing of the collective employment contract.

Sources close to Corm also confirm that the union does not work in favor of the employees. This seemingly goes back to 2013 when the former Minister of Telecommunications, Nicolas Sehnaoui, signed a collective agreement with the cellular employees’ union. Corm believes that back then, the telecommunications companies’ financial situation was much better, with a surplus in the sector and ample available funds.

Today, things are different. According to some sources, the signing of the collective contract will incur tens of millions of dollars for the ministry and the two companies. Information suggests the possibility of him holding a press conference to announce that he will withdraw from the specific dossier after disclosing the details of the collective employment contract, including the current benefits and additional salaries received by employees. He is quoted as saying, “I will talk to the media and disclose with figures what they are currently receiving and what they are demanding, and let the public opinion judge, and then I will pull out of this matter.”

The employee union of Lebanon’s cellular companies vehemently opposes all of Corm’s arguments for not signing the collective employment contract. This contract was supposed to be signed upon the expiration of the previous employment agreement on November 19, 2023. Employees highlight that the former Minister of Telecommunications, Mohamad Choucair, signed the collective employment contract under the caretaker government, rendering Corm’s argument invalid. The union urged all employees to comply with the decision to stop working, emphasizing the responsibility they bear towards themselves, their families, and their colleagues. It also called on everyone not to yield to any threats or pressures they may encounter until their rights, which are currently known to all, are secured, namely the signing of the collective employment contract and the actual assessment of salaries.

Let’s separate the ongoing issue and disagreement between the Minister of Telecoms, Johnny Corm, and the cellular employees’ union. According to labor law, “a collective employment contract is an agreement that governs working conditions between one party, represented by one or more unions or federations, and another party, consisting of one or more individual employers or a representative of a professional body.” In the case of the Ministry of Telecommunications and the cellular companies and their relationship with the employees, the collective employment contract is automatically renewed every two years for an additional two years.

The union initiates negotiations with the Minister of Telecommunications six months before the contract’s four-year expiration to enhance its terms for the benefit of the employees. The union started negotiations with the Minister of Telecommunications in May 2023 regarding the improvement of conditions. Matters were progressing positively until a disagreement arose between the minister and the union regarding certain benefits, promotions, and the ministry’s treatment of its employees.

A series of strikes carried out by the employees’ union has either resulted in some improvements to working conditions, salaries, and benefits, or in promises that have yet to be fulfilled. Employees sources claim that, for unknown reasons, Corm has been postponing the signing of the collective employment contract negotiated after the expiration of the previous contract in November 2023. Matters have escalated to the point where, according to employee sources, Johnny Corm has threatened to dismiss several employees if the strike was not called off, which has caused apprehension among the employees.

Looking back at the specifics of the collective employment contract and its key components (the old contract signed between the Minister of Telecommunications and the employees’ union), it mentions the following:

– An annual increase in employee salaries that is non-discretionary and is determined based on employee productivity.

– A yearly bonus equal to 2.5 times the base salary, which has not been paid to employees since 2019. Initially, the union negotiated and agreed to reduce it from 2.5 times to between 1.7 and 2 times. Eventually, the union accepted a bonus of 1.5 times the base salary, a commitment that the two companies did not adhere to, despite the collective contract between the ministry and the union specifying a 2.5 times ratio.

– Daily meal allowance: The old contract specifies an allocation of 5000 Lebanese pounds for each working day as a meal allowance for employees, which they have not received since 2019.

– Health insurance: The collective employment contract notes that all employees (with their spouses and children) are entitled to first-class health insurance coverage (In & Out) in all Lebanese hospitals, except the American University Hospital, St. George’s Hospital-Roum, and LAU Medical Center-Rizk Hospital.

– Educational allowances for children: Employees’ children benefit from $4000 annually for school and $6000 for university for each child. However, following the crisis, companies began paying only 25% of this annual allowance upfront, with the remaining amount kept in the bank in the form of “lollars.”

One of the key amendments introduced to the collective employment contract, which the caretaker minister delays signing, includes:

– Setting a range for annual bonuses for employees between 1 and 2.5 times the employees’ salaries, meaning that some “preferential” individuals will not benefit from larger increases.

– Increasing the daily meal allowance from 5000 Lebanese pounds to $5.

While maintaining the clauses outlined in the old contract, which must be upheld regarding the educational allowances for employees’ children, employees have agreed not to enforce some provisions of the contract as they are. This includes reducing the level of healthcare coverage and exempting certain medical procedures from coverage. Despite the contract providing them with the best levels of healthcare coverage and not specifying hospitals to visit, it covers all medical procedures.

The cellular company employees’ strike is ongoing under the slogan “Our strength is in our unity.” The union maintains communication with the head of the Information and Telecommunications Committee, MP Ibrahim al-Mousawi, and MP Farid al-Khazen, who serves as a mediator between the union and Corm, being politically close to him. Meanwhile, Corm reaffirmed that he will not pass on to his successor — whoever takes over the Ministry of Telecom in the next phase — the burdens of the collective employment contract sought by the employees, which amounts to approximately 10 million dollars.

As for the employees, they staunchly reject these figures, considering that the cost of implementing the proposed amendments to the collective employment contract does not exceed 1.5 million dollars annually for the two companies.

The negative impact of the strike is tied to the timeline. The longer the ministry delays signing, the higher the risk of adverse effects. The initial consequences of the strike were seen in the decreased telecommunications and internet services in various regions, particularly in the south, north, and Beirut, as numerous transmission stations owned by the two companies ceased operations due to maintenance interruption.

Furthermore, Corm’s ongoing reluctance to sign the contract means the employees will persist in discontinuing their work. As a result, it is expected that prepaid SIM card supplies in the market will deplete, potentially leading to their circulation in the black market and subsequent price inflation.

At this point, sources have disclosed that the minister has directed one of his closely associated directors to contact the agents and request their presence at the ministry next Tuesday to collect the SIM cards. This move would place them in direct opposition to the striking employees who are refusing to hand over the cards.

Corm decided to transfer this issue to the government’s attention, opting to present the matter to the Cabinet for a decision on whether to sign the contract or not. However, according to the union, the Cabinet has no jurisdiction over this matter. Previous telecommunications ministers readily signed the contract, and the union perceives Corm’s move as an attempt to shift responsibility and delay the signing process. A union member asserted that the minister should sign the employment contract and refrain from arbitrary actions regarding the promotion of certain employees or the increase of their salaries.