Lebanon's private sector strike described as 'unmatched in 40 years'

Published September 5th, 2013 - 01:48 GMT
Head of the Industrialists Association Nehmat Frem warned that Lebanon had crossed into dangerous territory when its public debt grew above $60 billion.
Head of the Industrialists Association Nehmat Frem warned that Lebanon had crossed into dangerous territory when its public debt grew above $60 billion.

 Most leading businesses, malls and banks observed a one-day strike in Beirut and some parts of the country Wednesday, threatening further action if officials failed to form a new government.

“We will adopt escalatory steps in the event a government is not formed,” said Adnan Kassar, head of the Economic Committees, which led the call for strike. “Our action is not aimed at disruption but stems from our concern for the country.”

His comments came during a news conference that followed a meeting with President Michel Sleiman.

“Lebanon is almost the only country in the world where employers take the decision [to strike] when faced by economic risks,” Sleiman said at the news conference.

“This is a strong call for restoring the situation in the country ... and this needs the cooperation of everyone,” Sleiman added.

Kassar and the business leaders insisted that the strike was successful and had served its purpose.

“The strike achieved its aim and Lebanon has not seen a similar action by the private sector in 40 years,” said Nicolas Chammas, head of the Beirut Traders Association.

He added that the Economic Committees had gone ahead with the action in spite of its high cost to businesses, ranging between $75 million and $100 million.

Head of the Industrialists Association Nehmat Frem warned that Lebanon had crossed into dangerous territory when its public debt grew above $60 billion.

“We demand a government that is capable of neutralizing [the dangers of] all regional struggles, because the economy and citizens are paying a huge price,” he said.

In Beirut’s main Hamra thoroughfare and Ashrafieh’s Sassine Square, big stores and banks abided by the strike action.

But many small shops and businesses were seen open. In total, an estimated 50 percent of businesses were closed around 11 a.m.

Marwan Chehab, one of the Hamra vendors that remained opened, said the strike did not make much sense to him.

“The strike does not make a difference, and even those who call themselves leaders have no say in the formation of a Cabinet,” he said.

“If we close the shop, we will only incur more losses.”

A number of cafe and restaurant owners said they ended the strike action at 12 p.m. in line with a decision by the Association of Restaurants.

But many cafes and restaurants were seen open for business even before midday.

Some of the biggest shopping malls in the country closed for most of the day and re-opened at 4 p.m.

Businesses in the capital’s suburbs seemed less concerned by the strike, and shops were mostly open in Antelias, Zalka, Dora and Beirut’s southern suburbs. The NNA said most businesses in Jounieh went on strike.

In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, the picture was similar with many large, privately owned firms and banks closed. A significant number of the shops in the city center were closed, The Daily Star’s correspondent in the area reported.

However, the strike action in the southern city of Sidon was limited to the closure of banks.

The normally busy city streets saw little morning traffic.

The NNA reported closures in downtown Zahle. However, in other parts of the country, only banks were closed for business.

The majority of gas stations operated normally despite a decision by oil importers to stop delivering fuel.

The Economic Committees – a body representing private sector groups – called for the strike last week, demanding that political parties agree on forming a Cabinet in order to support the economy.

The Cabinet resigned in March following a fallout over attempts to extend the term of a senior security official and the formation of a committee to oversee the now postponed general elections.

Caretaker Industry Minister Vreij Sabounjian said Wednesday the strike would not hasten a Cabinet lineup, reiterating calls for a “quiet economic dialogue” between government officials and the Economic Committees.

“The participation of the banking sector in the strike cripples the work of businesses and citizens as well as investors, who are obliged to make daily transfers, deposits and withdrawals,” he said

Economy Minister Nicolas Nahas said that while action carried a rightful message, Lebanon had little control over the causes of recession.

“The main problem is the regional crisis and the war raging in Syria, which is causing political divisions in the region and among Lebanese political parties. We are paying the price of those divisions,” he said.

The private sector strike coincided with sit-ins by the Union Coordination Committee demanding the passage of the long-awaited public sector wage increase and “the protection of national unity.”

UCC head Hanna Gharib disassociated his group’s action from that of the Economic Committees.

“Our action has nothing to do with that of the money ‘whales,’” he told protesters, adding that by standing against planned public sector wage increases, the Economic Committees had made cooperation with the labor group impossible.

“We want a government to protect civil peace and ensure the livelihood of citizens that are part of the civil peace,” Gharib told a rally outside the Education Ministry Wednesday.

Similar protests were held in Tripoli, Baabda and Sidon.

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