Drivers and transport workers in Lebanon strike against government apathy

The striking workers blocked several major highways and roads demanding the government to reinstate past subsidies on fuel and other commodities in the face of spiraling inflation

January 14, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Protest in Lebabon
Roads blocked in Beirut. (Photo: Middle East Online)

Thousands of drivers and transport sector workers in Lebanon organized a nationwide strike on Thursday, January 13, to protest rising fuel prices and the government’s failure to address their concerns. Transport workers, including taxi drivers, truck drivers and tanker drivers, brought the country to a standstill by blocking several major highways and barricading roads inside various cities and towns. Led by a number of public transportation and labor unions, the workers marked Thursday as a “day of rage” and started their protest actions at 5 am in the morning, scheduled to last for 12 hours.

The protesting drivers registered their anger with the government for neglecting their concerns and gradually ending subsidies on fuel and other expenses in the middle of a devastating economic crisis and currency collapse. News reports stated that due to their protest, traffic was disrupted around the country causing extended work delays and forcing many workplaces, banks, schools and universities to remain shut for the day. 

Protests were reported in the capital Beirut, Verdun, Hamra, Dora, Karantina, Mkalles, Nahr el-Kalb, Sarba, Sidon, Naameh, Aley, Dahr el-Baydar, among other cities. In many places, the protesters used their own trucks, buses and other vehicles to block highways and roads. Some also used large trash bins and municipal dumpsters to block traffic. The Lebanese army and security forces were deployed in heavy numbers in areas to monitor the protests after clashes were reported at some places between protesters and the general public. According to news reports, a concurrent protest was staged by fuel distributors who refused to unload international cargo until the government intervened to resolve the currency crisis.

The head of the Unions and Syndicates of the Land Transport Sector, Bassam Tlais, told local media that Thursday’s actions were just the “beginning” of their outrage “directed against the government, which has not fulfilled its promises to support the land transport sector and stop violations. We couldn’t care less about politics or the reasons for the Cabinet’s failure to convene.” 

He also said, “we have set a time and a place to gather and protest and the goal of the strike is not to ruin the country,” adding that “the next steps will be announced at the end of the strike.” 

Head of the General Labor Union, Bechara Al-Asmar, in a statement expressing support for the protests, said that their actions were “a cry for officials to perform their role and duties toward the people.” 

The Lebanese government headed by prime minister Najib Mikati has repeatedly promised transport sector workers assistance in the form of compensation and subsidies to help them cope with their work-related expenses, especially fuel costs, amid rising general inflation and the decline in the value of the Lebanese pound against the US dollar.

The Lebanese pound, which has lost close to 95% of its value in the last few years, is being sold in the black market at an exchange rate of 31,500 for one dollar, drastically higher than the officially pegged rate of 1500 to 1. The currency crisis which began in 2019 has caused massive inflation and shortage of essential items such as food, medicines, and fuel. It has wiped out the incomes and savings of millions of Lebanese citizens, driving them into poverty and despair. 

The Lebanese economy has been struggling due to decades of government neglect, corruption, and mismanagement and years of war and political instability. Its further decline has affected almost every economic sector and aspect of life. The country has witnessed a multitude of economic issues such as widespread unemployment, acute shortages of food and other basic goods, long and regular power cuts, and lack of public services especially in the critical sectors of healthcare and education. According to the latest statistics, over 80% of the population now lives in poverty and the national public debt to GDP ratio is among the highest in the world at over 170% with a national debt of around USD 98 billion. General inflation in the country currently stands at 174%, however, the rate of inflation in regard to food items is one of the highest in the world at a staggering 557%. 

With the government routinely implementing spending cuts and cutting back on subsidies on even essential items such as bread, wheat, medicines and fuel, the economic condition of ordinary citizens is likely to worsen in the future. The government is continuing these austerity measures in the hope of receiving long-promised foreign aid worth billions of dollars from the International Monetary Fund and other donors, meant to be used for an economic recovery and rescue plan for the country. However, the financial aid is conditional on the government enacting budget cuts. A large part of this aid will go towards servicing the foreign debt, making it unclear how much will be left to repair the Lebanese economy and alleviate the condition of the common people.