Lebanon's internet could go dark amid strike by state-owned Ogero's workers

Employees are demanding pay increases to offset plummeting value of the country's currency

Ogero employees said they would stop work completely 'given the continuous disregard for our demands'. AP
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Lebanon faces internet blackout threats as employees of its state-run telecoms company Ogero began an open-ended strike on Friday to demand pay increases reflecting the sharp depreciation of the national currency.

“We are heading to a catastrophe if a deal is not found with the government: the network will completely stop working as our generators will gradually run out of fuel”, Imad Kreidieh, Ogero’s chairman, told The National on Friday.

He warned that Alfa and Touch, Lebanon's telephone operators, will also be affected.

“Lebanon completely relies on Ogero for its bandwidth, leaving no one exempt from a blackout,” he said.

He said that the worker's demands were “legitimate”, as their salary is not enough to cover transportation costs.

The currency crisis has slashed Ogero’s yearly budget to the equivalent of $4 million, he added. This amount is barely enough to cover the expenses for the fuel required to operate the internet relay stations, leading to drastic salary cuts.

The development will depend on talks with the parliament, which is set to convene on Monday.

“The issue of public servants' salary is supposed to be on the table. We will see what comes from the session: maybe politicians need a sudden blackout to realise how important the telecom sector is,” Mr Kreidieh said.

Salaries 'worth nothing'

Lebanon’s currency hit a record low last week, with 100,000 Lebanese pounds now worth only $1, compared with $67 before an economic crisis that began in 2019.

Most people's salaries have failed to keep up with the cost of living, with inflation estimated at more than 180 per cent last month.

“Our salary is worth nothing because of the currency collapse, our demands are the same as other public sector employees: we want our salaries to be tied to the dollar,” said Marwan Halabi, a member of Ogero's Union.

He said that salaries start at around 7 million, which is the equivalent of 70 dollars.

Pay increments and financial aid granted to public servants have not kept pace with rampant inflation — about 124 per cent in January, one of the highest inflation rates in the world.

“We negotiated some salary increases in Lebanese lira in the past. However, as the currency's value keeps deteriorating, the salary increase loses its worth almost immediately,” Mr Halabi said.

A black-market currency dealer holds US dollars and Lebanese pounds bills in Beirut on March 14. AFP

The workers' union staged a “warning strike” earlier in the week, which was “ignored” by authorities, prompting the syndicate to escalate to an open-ended strike.

The employees said in a press release on Thursday they would stop work completely “given the continuous disregard for our demands to amend salaries, which are now equivalent to one per cent” of what they used to be.

The dignity of workers and their right to a decent life “is not subject to negotiation or extortion”, the union said.

It called on contractors and daily workers to join the strike.

The economic crisis has pushed more than 80 per cent of Lebanon's population into poverty, according to the UN.

State employees across several sectors, including judges and teachers, have regularly gone on strike in protest against the deterioration in living standards because of the currency's fall.

Updated: March 24, 2023, 11:56 AM