Lebanon unions go on strike over living conditions

Lebanon unions stage general strike to protest deteriorating living conditions
3 min read
17 June, 2021
Lebanese workers staged a general strike on Thursday to urge the formation of a transitional government and action to stop the country's economic death spiral.
Lebanese unions called a strike over the country's failing economy [TNA]

Lebanese workers staged a nationwide strike on Thursday to protest the rapidly deteriorating living conditions in the country.

The general strike included professional organisations, public sector employees, and even banks and took aim at the failure of Lebanese politicians to form a government and fix the failing economy.

Workers gathered in Beirut to support the strike, where union leaders told Lebanon's political leaders to take action but before it's too late. 

"What is being done to us today is an attempt to kill us without bullets - stop! Form a transitional government now, come off your thrones," the head of the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers, Bechara al-Asmar, thundered.

Al-Asmar told The New Arab: "We have one goal with this strike, to form a transitional government that can deal with this terrible economic situation that we're living in. The situation of workers today is awful, with the complete absence of real support [from the government]."

The value of the Lebanese lira has fallen sharply in the last 18 months, losing 90 percent of its value since the fall of 2019. Prices have risen dramatically as the Lebanese Central Bank floods the market with lira, pushing many basic goods out of reach of ordinary Lebanese workers.

"My salary, what happened to it?" asked Widad Harb, an employee of Lebanon's public tobacco company who came to the headquarters of the workers confederation in protest. "Before my salary was $600, $700 - now it's $50!" she told The New Arab.

As the Lebanese people watch their salaries dwindle and prices increase, the political class has floated rudderless, fighting amongst itself rather than addressing the economic crisis.

The country is ruled by a caretaker government, made up of the cabinet of the former government which resigned in wake of the Beirut Blast on 4 August 2020. Politicians have failed to form a new government since then.

There is a subsidies programme that covers the price of many essential goods - such as bread and certain medications - but issues between the central bank and importers mean that many supported products are impossible to find on shop shelves.

The caretaker government has gone as far as forming a committee to examine competing proposals to address the problems with the subsidies programme and provide much-needed relief to struggling families. The proposed solutions both involve direct cash handouts to families, but disagreements have prevented any initiative from moving forward.

While the political class dithers, life in Lebanon has ground to a standstill - literally. The declining exchange rate - trading at 15,200 liras to the US dollar at the time of publishing - has hamstrung the government’s ability to import fuel.

Though fuel is currently subsidised, dwindling foreign currency has caused the government to flirt with the idea of lifting subsidies. If sold at market price, fuel would be unaffordable to most Lebanese.

The result is fuel queues snaking through the streets of Lebanon and a race to find gas stations that still have fuel available. "I woke up at 3am to get fuel today - I had to wait in line four hours," a taxi driver told The New Arab on Thursday.

There is little optimism that the economic crisis will be solved any time soon - this is the second time that the unions have gone on strike in a month and protesters expressed a sense of resigned exasperation with the gridlocked politicians.

"I want to tell the Lebanese politicians, 'if you aren't able to solve it, leave'. If they hand the government over to better people, there is hope. Lebanon will go back to being a beautiful country," Harb said.