Fight globalisation together says Lebanese TU leader
Castro Abdallah is the President of the Construction WorkersUnion of Lebanon. He was in Sydney last week as a guest of the Construction Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, and spoke to The Guardian about problems facing workers today in Lebanon. We would like to thank the CFMEU for sponsoring our visit to Australia, allowing us to raise our voices in support of Australian trade unions. We are also here to meet and convince all workers of Arabic background of the need to join their trade union, irrespective of their occupation. As immigrant workers in this country they may not know of their rights in the workplace; by joining a union they will not only receive assistance in this regard, but be able to support their fellow workers also. We condemn the attack of September 11, and express our sorrow at the loss of life of the innocent victims. But we cannot ignore the reasons for the attack. It is the result of a long history of State terrorism perpetrated by the United States and Israel. In Lebanon we still suffer daily attacks from the Israeli army. We also know that the leading terrorist-Ariel Sharon, was responsible for great massacres of our people in the 1980s. Now, as Prime Minister he continues to be responsible for killing innocent victims-women and children in Palestine. He does this with the support of America, and using American weapons. So we must condemn them also. While America declares a "war on terrorism", we know what happened in New York on September 11 is also being used as an excuse by imperialists-led by America-to attack all the progressive, leftist and union forces all over the world. And we know that this attack on the working people was planned well before September 11. Suddenly there are massive job losses and unemployment, workers are being forced to accept lower wages, their conditions and entitlements are disappearing. America is also using the IMF and World Bank in its attack on workers around the world-particularly those in the smaller nations. They say these institutions are there for the benefit of the smaller and weaker countries, but in reality the conditions placed on these countries by the IMF and WB are simply to bring those countries under American control. WB and IMF policies Lebanon has been severely affected by these conditions and it is the ordinary citizens who are suffering. They have forced the Lebanese Government to sell off most of its public sector industries, like water, electricity and transport to multinational companies. We have been forced to remove our import tariffs. Our social security system has been under attack from the government and is on its way to being demolished, and rental laws have been changed in favour of the landlords. Laws have been introduced to take away our civil rights, freedom of speech. These policies have caused about 30 percent unemployment among the Lebanese workers. They have also implemented what you call in Australia a GST-a 10 percent tax on goods and services. But while this tax has been applied to the essential items for daily living, luxury items like yachts, gold and diamonds have been exempted. All this is happening while the Government has just approved a large pay rise for all its Members and Ministers. Our Prime Minster is one of the 50 wealthiest men in the world, and his secretary, and one of his ministers are even richer! Another example of Lebanese law the union movement is fighting against is the "sole agent law". This law gives a company the licence to be the sole importer or exporter of a certain product. The licences covering every such product in the country are held by just 350 companies, allowing them to monopolise the market and charge high prices. Of course, Members of Parliament, Directors of government departments, and their mates run many of the companies that hold these licences. And even though the Government has imposed tough conditions and lots of restrictions on all demonstrations, and given security forces a free hand to attack us, the unions have declared that we will hold a big demonstration on the first Thursday of next month. If the Government does not cave in to our demands and abolish the law, we will call for rolling strikes all over the country. To counteract this union power the Government has passed a law allowing it to set up its own unions. At the moment they are only very small — 20 or 30 people in each union-and they are set up along religious lines. The Government then gave recognition to, and promoted these unions, (and handed them $500,000 in the last budget), as a tactic aimed at confusing and splitting the workers. These laws have been implemented under orders from the IMF and WB, as a means to attack the progressive, left-wing and communist unions, which currently have a big influence and great respect among the workers. The trade union movement in Lebanon is a very old movement. It really started after the October Revolution in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. History of Trade Unionism The Trade Union movement was started by Communist activists such as Mustafa Al Ariss and Fouad Al-shmaly to name a few. The Fishermen's Union, Mechanic Workers, and Steel Workers-all these sectors were very strong. It was a federation including these unions that fought the French in the 1940s and won our independence. However, after independence the Government destroyed that federation, and replaced it with one loyal to their regime and to the Government. They banned these unions and put the people in jails. But even that did not stop the communist movement and its activities. The communists established underground associations and societies, and the strong link between the Party and the workers was maintained. In 1964 the government thought the best way to deal with the communist union was to bring it back into their "loyal" federation, to let them work within the federation so that they could control them. The communist unions joined the federation, but the effect was the reverse. The communists influenced every industrial action taken by the federation. In the early '70s there were many large industrial actions against companies. The Government sent in security forces in support of the companies and in the clashes that followed, many comrades were wounded, some even killed. In 1973, the Government and right-wing forces really felt the power of the left-wing unions when 50,000 people took to the streets in protest over the increase in the price of bread. From 1973 the class struggle became clearer, much clearer to the people. There were a few big demonstrations and you could see communist and left- wing forces starting to gain great respect among the people. A War of class struggle This, in our opinion, is what started the 1975 war. Some people say it was a foreign war on Lebanese soil, or a religious war. For us, it was a war of class struggle, it was an economic war. When the war started, the unions, progressive and communist parties in Lebanon had to struggle on two fronts. Firstly, we had to support the Government in its fight against the foreign forces-Israel and its capitalist allies. Yet at the same time we had to maintain our fight against the Government and the right-wing forces and the rich people's monopoly over governments, and the exploitation of the workers. Even though there was war on, the union movement did not stop asking for better wages and conditions for the workers. The Government continued to harass the unions, putting pressure on us in the name of "national unity"; demanding loyalty to the government in its fight against the foreign invasion. Since the war ended the Government has continued to pressure us, setting up the new religious unions in an attempt to split us and weaken our position and weaken the union movement as a whole. Problems facing workers The most important problem we are facing in Lebanon today is unemployment. The second problem is that the union movement and unionists still suffer harassment from the Government. We are still fighting their attempts to demolish workers' rights. The government continues to change workplace laws and introduce legislation taking away all the workers' conditions that were won, like social security. We also have to reawaken the community. Most Lebanese people now are following their religious leader and they are not following what is in their best interest-the class struggle. Unfortunately, the trade unions are suffering from lack of funds and low resources, which makes it very difficult to carry out our work, keep in contact with the people and our membership. Our ability to produce newspapers and other media is very limited. When we print leaflets and try to distribute them among the people, it takes us three days to get them to the South and North of the country. By the time the leaflets are distributed it will be another three days. That's about six days altogether, and by then the news is already old. On the other hand the government and the religious forces have their radio and TV stations-all you have to do is just sit in your room and press a button to see all their programs. That way it makes it difficult for us to explain to people what's behind the news really. We can see that religious questions are starting to divide the people. Privatisation is another problem we face — the government promised the European union that it will finish selling off the public sector and cutting workers' conditions and wages so that it can be part of the European Market. With all that we still have a young activist movement, very active. Our women's movement has started to gain some success. The political ideas and ideology of the left wing are starting to regain their place among the people. These are not just our problems, but international problems. This is what globalisation is all about. We need to support each other, work together and cooperate with each other, especially in the international arena and at the international level. We need to establish a workers' globalisation to face the corporate globalisation. We need to fight globalisation, its attacks on unions and against all the people. This is the basis for our solidarity.
* * *This interview was conducted in Arabic.
Acknowledgements to Allan Maarbani for translating into English.