Al Akhbar news, a Lebanese daily newspaper and online outfit, was first to report in January that the CEO of Lebanon's Spinneys franchise, Michael Wright, had been removed from his post. It seemed like the paper had a great scoop and others followed suit.
However, it didn’t take much digging to learn that Wright, who has worked with the upmarket chain for 23 years, was still in his position. Speaking on the telephone from Beirut earlier this month, Wright confirmed this in no uncertain terms: “no, I have not been sacked,” he said.
Akhbar has so far refused to back down and it now appears that the left-leaning paper and the fashionable shopper’s food mecca, Spinneys, are locked in a media war.
At its heart, the point of contention rests on a perceived lack of rights for the workers at the stores. The chain operates in countries across the region and employs 1,300 staff in Lebanon alone. But the saga has moved away from the supermarket aisles and into the realm of politics with those at the very top apparently involved in the drama.
The Spinneys saga began when the Lebanese government ruled to increase the minimum wage by around 35 per cent, to $450 dollars a month. The store held back on implementing the rise as a whole, instead deciding to up the wages of only their staff members that ‘warranted it’.
Staff fought back, organizing a trade union to push through the issue and they were backed by ex-minister of labor, Charbal Nahas, who wanted to see an even bigger wage increase when he was in office.
According to the Spinney’s CEO, the company had no problems with this although membership of the union was fairly low. The grocery store did eventually hike up salaries after claiming that they couldn’t afford the increase across the board.
However, Wright claims that the same union members were leaking false information to Al Akhbar during this time via Charbal Nahas, which, in his words, printed “very violent, never accurate and at least weekly articles”, about the store.
The leftist rag was founded to “uphold the highest standards of journalistic integrity while remaining true to the principles of anti-imperialist struggle, progressive politics, and freedom of expression.”
The embattled CEO claims that at the same time as the union was formed, Nahas started a vitriolic campaign against the oldtime- Mandate-Middle-East-trader-in-British Empire goods, Spinneys, and its Chief. At one point Nahas claimed that Wright had kidnapped people, not an uncommon accusation in Lebanon, although the British-born CEO denies the ‘slur’ in the strongest possible terms.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) weighed in to the battle at the end of August last year, saying that it supported workers rights and that staff should be allowed to unionize, although Spinneys says it never actively stopped people from taking part in union activities.
Wright took pains to explain to Al Bawaba that the lawyer for Al Akhbar used to work for the ILO, thus proving, according to him, a politicized connection.
Legal battles are continuing between the two sides and the media war between the mega-grocer and the people’s paper shows no sign of abating. Michael Wright has wasted no time in waging his own concerted crusade to have the world see him as the victim of a sustained campaign by left-wing activists in Lebanon.
For Akhbar’s part, it looks like they are trying to be the voice of workers’ rights – which for them take precedence over a multi-national corporation.
When Al Bawaba contacted Mohammad Zbeeb, the author of the contested article, the man behind the media debacle did not refute the content of his piece.
It appears that in Lebanon, at least, the old fashioned contest of workers versus owners continues to this day. The truth, if it is out there, is tough to come by in the murky lines where media, Lebanese politics, power and corruption merge.
Tell us what you think! Is this a case of old style left versus right or is there something more to it it? Do let us know and join in the coversation!
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