BEIRUT (AP) — Internet shutdowns rippled through cash-strapped Lebanon on Tuesday after employees of the country’s state-owned telecom company went on strike, demanding higher wages.
It was the latest reflection of one of the world’s worst economic disasters, which has pulled three quarters of Lebanon’s 6 million people into poverty. The Lebanese pound in three years has lost over 90 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar.
Employees of Ogero and other public sector institutions have not had their wages adjusted to accommodate the pound’s depreciation and skyrocketing inflation.
Striking Ogero employees told The Associated Press that they want their salaries raised after the government’s recent hike on telecom fees and internet subscriptions. They say some of the salaries are now worth about $125.
“At first we were able to tolerate the inflation just like everyone else, but then people started to sell their cars, jewelry, and personal belongings to get by,” one employee told the AP on condition of anonymity, because they fear they may lose their job. “All we have left is to sell our homes, but then we would end up on the streets.”
Ogero Chairman Imad Kreidieh urged the Lebanese government to take swift action to resolve the situation.
“Unfortunately at my level there is very little to do,” Kreidieh told the AP. “Ogero does not have the funds to deal with the matter.”
According to Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency, internet shutdowns have hit several towns across the country, including in several neighborhoods of Beirut.
Caretaker Telecommunications Minister Johnny Corm did not immediately respond to the AP when asked if government is working to resolve the internet shutdowns. Another Ogero employee said they would not break the strike until they hold negotiations with Corm and reach a settlement.
Internet shutdowns are expected to reach more parts of the country as electricity generators run out of fuel.
Legislator Paula Yacoubian told the AP that Parliament’s telecommunications committee will meet Monday next week to discuss the issue.
Parliament meanwhile has yet to pass a 2022 state budget, as the country scrambles to reform its corrupt and unproductive economy.
Thousands of public sector workers have already been on strike for almost two months, demanding higher wages and transportation stipends.
The Lebanese government in May approved raising internet and telephone subscription prices, saying the hikes are crucial for the survival of the country’s ailing telecom sector, which is struggling to maintain its infrastructure and afford diesel fuel for its generators.
Lebanon’s already frail infrastructure further deteriorated after the massive Beirut port blast on Aug. 4, 2020, that killed over 200 people, wounded thousands, and destroyed several neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital.
Lebanon’s economic crisis continues to pulverize public life. The cash-strapped country already struggles with soaring gasoline, electricity, and food prices, as well as rampant power cuts and water shortages. Residents rely almost entirely on expensive private diesel generator subscriptions, as the country’s indebted and bloated state electricity company provides no more than about two hours of power daily.
Ogero over the past two years has struggled with upkeeping its infrastructure, affording fuel for its generators, and to prevent theft of copper and metal wires. In January, about 26,000 subscribers in Beirut went offline due to diesel fuel shortages, including the Internal Security Forces’ operations room.
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