Economic Conflict in Postwar Lebanon: State-Labor Relations between 1992 and 1997

Article excerpt

This article examines state-labor relations in post civil war Lebanon. It covers the period between the coming to power of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in October 1992, and the government-orchestrated defeat of labor leader Ilyas Abu Rizq in the General Confederation of Labor (CGTL) elections of 24 April 1997. This period was characterized by repeated confrontations between government and labor over a wide range of socioeconomic and political issues. Despite the removal of the militant labor leadership in 1997, most of the issues dividing government and labor have remained unresolved, thus setting the stage for a future round of confrontations.

Hardly any empirical work has been done on state-labor relations in Lebanon, despite the importance of the subject.' This article tries to remedy this problem, by focusing on those relations during a critical period in the recent history of Lebanon's labor movement (1992-97). These years witnessed a growth in labor militancy and in labor pressure on the government brought about by two main factors: first, the deterioration in the living conditions of workers during the Lebanese civil war years (1975-89) and the first few

years following the cessation of hostilities (1990-92); and second, the election of a more militant labor leadership in July 1993, represented mainly by the former president and secretary general of the CGTL, Ilyas Abu Rizq and Yasir Ni`mi, respectively. The governments of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (1992-present) made a few concessions to labor, by agreeing to limited wage increments in 1994, 1995 and 1996. These concessions, however, failed to satisfy the demands of the labor leadership; and, by late 1994 or early 1995, the CGTL became an integral part of the political opposition to Hariri, which included leftist as well as non-leftist elements.2

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: STATE-LABOR RELATIONS UNTIL 1992

Trade unions or syndicates (niqabat 'ummaliyya) have existed in Lebanon since the inter-war period (1919-39), although one pro-communist labor activist, Ilyas Buwari, traces their origins to the beginning of the twentieth century.3 Three years after independence, in September 1946, the Lebanese parliament approved a labor code that listed the basic rights and duties of employers and employees.4 The speedy adoption of that code was to enable Lebanon to join the International Labor Organization (ILO) that year. The 1946 labor law was progressive by the standards of the time, granting workers certain basic rights, such as the right to organize. However, under Article 50, employers retained the power to dismiss workers for any reason and on very short notice.5 In the 1950s and 1960s, the number of unionized workers steadily grew, and the labor movement became increasingly vocal, demanding a review of Article 50 of the labor law, a raise of the minimum wage, the establishment of a social security fund, approval of paid holidays, the reduction of working hours, and the recognition of the right of workers to establish trade unions and federations of unions without government intervention.

The Labor Movement in the 1960s and the 1970s

From independence until 1970, the labor movement was plagued by internal divisions caused, in part, by a deliberate government policy of encouraging the formation of more than one union to represent workers in the same sector, and then fostering rivalries between the unions.b Furthermore, there were genuine ideological differences between right wing trade unions, dominated by the Christian Phalangist party, and left wing, including pro-communist, unions. While internal divisions and rivalries weakened the labor movement, they did not render it totally ineffective: trade unions and federations of unions were able to obtain many concessions from government and employers. In the 1960s, for instance, the movement to legalize trade unions and federations of unions, regardless of their ideology, gained momentum. …