Moukheiber Habshi, a member of the founding committee of the Spinneys-Lebanon workers union, was assaulted Monday night by attackers who told him to leave the union or “we’ll break your bones,” Habshi said.
The attack was the latest in a series of incidents aimed at sabotaging union activity in the retail giant, which operates seven large supermarkets around Lebanon.
The Spinneys union applied for registration with the Ministry of Labor at the end of July and is planning to hold elections soon. Its recent establishment was considered a victory for labor rights activists against the management of Spinneys-Lebanon whose exploitative practices were documented by the International Labor Organization.
Late Monday night, upon finishing his shift in the Spinneys branch in Dbayeh, Habshi found himself alone in the store parking lot.
“They followed me to the parking lot and began beating me, hitting my head and body.”
The attack follows a campaign of intimidation against Habshi and other union activists.
“I have received many threats recently,” Habshi told Al-Akhbar. “They want me to leave my job or give up union work.”
“The threats came directly from William Taouk [son of former MP Gibran Taouk], who is deeply involved in running the company’s contracts and deals, and his henchmen and driver,” he added.
Following the attack, Habshi was transferred to a hospital, where he received a medical report. He later filed an official complaint with the authorities.
Whatever happens and even if I get beaten up a second or a third time, I will remain in the union. “If you knew what was happening inside the company, you would understand why I think like this”.Habshi said he had been expecting some kind of altercation based on the threats he had received, and even asked the company’s human resources department to transfer him to another branch, but management refused.
The company also denied his request to take his yearly vacation in order to get away from the threatening atmosphere.
Even after the assault, Habshi said he would not abandon the union.
“Whatever happens and even if I get beaten up a second or a third time, I will remain in the union. It is my soul,” he said. “If you knew what was happening inside the company, you would understand why I think like this.”
The company has reportedly been stepping up efforts to intimidate employees against joining the union.
Union sources say the company tried to force employees to sign a statement declaring their withdrawal from the union in the presence of a notary public, but they later changed their minds and retracted their signatures.
According to an activist monitoring the union situation in the company, “The company created a special unit in charge of summoning employees and pressuring them or transferring them to branches that are several hours away from their homes – they want them to give up on their union work.”
The attack on Habshi was probably the most overt warning to date for those who wish to exercise their union rights in the runup to the election.
“They want it to be an atmosphere of complete terror,” a union activist told Al-Akhbar.
The Spinneys-Lebanon Union Founding Committee condemned the attack on Habshi in a statement released yesterday.
“[This attack] is a continuation of the company’s attempts to force the stalwarts of the founding committee to resign, leave the company, or be terrorized into limiting their activities. It is evident that the threats were meant to force the assaulted leader out of the union,” the statement read.
The statement went on to say that the company has consistently reacted to union mobilization by “dismissing and transferring [employees], imposing retaliatory and discriminatory measures, and [resorting to] terrorism and scare tactics.”
The statement characterized the incident as a “terrorist act,” which is a felony offense.
The committee called on Labor Minister Salim Jreissati “to perform his duties in protecting union members and workers.”
It also demanded an end to “criminal actions perpetrated by the company,” including the unlawful dismissal of union members Milad Barakat and Samir Taouk.
Barakat and Taouk were fired last summer after exposing workers rights issues within the company, including management’s insistence on following its own interpretation of the wages correction bill of 2012, in violation of the actual legislation.
The union committee called on all professional unions, the media, and politicians to support its cause and live up to their promises to protect public freedoms. It also renewed its call to all Spinneys-Lebanon employees to join the union in accordance with their rights.
In a press statement, the Union of Print and Media Workers announced their solidarity with Habshi and Spinneys workers. They called on authorities to prosecute the perpetrators of the attack.
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