Open letter to Reuters, on behalf of 115 security guards previously working for TOTAL and G4S in Yemen.
Regarding: The article “Guards’ pay dispute with Total, G4S evokes Yemen’s economic misery” published by Reuters on March 31, 2017.
On March 31, your agency published an article related to the dispute between Yemeni workers, the energy company TOTAL and its previous subcontractor in Yemen, G4S. It is a highly positive step that after more than a year-long struggle by these workers for their most basic rights, the horrendous experience they have undergone in the hands of powerful corporations is filtering through the mass media.
We want to use this opportunity to respond to some of the allegations made by these companies against the workers in a desperate attempt to cover up their shameful actions — as well as to clarify a few points connected to this case that your article unfortunately did not deal with.
The article reads, “Both Total and G4S, the French oil giant’s security service provider, deny ditching the guards, saying they had made sure they were properly compensated when official termination notices were issued before they left Yemen.”
To begin with, official termination notices were never issued to the workers; if it was so, one would wonder why TOTAL, after more than a year of outcry over its role in Yemen, and multiple attempts from journalists, workers’ representatives, and activists to respond, has not provided any evidence of this. Indications of the opposite, however, do exist, such as the testimonies that can be offered by virtually every worker concerned by this dispute. Below are just a few.
-Mohsin Omar Almashdali, security worker for TOTAL/G4S for eleven years, learned by watching TV towards the end of December 2015 that TOTAL had left Yemen.
-Abdulalim Hamoud Mohammed, eight years in the company, told us that it was only when he didn’t get his salary for February 2016 that he knew the company had actually packed up and gone.
-Rabbi Atiah, who worked there for eleven years, explained: “I did not know that the two companies had left Yemen. I heard from some of the staff that TOTAL and G4S would leave but did not know when. No notice from any competent authority or the government reached to inform me that the company was about to leave. I was surprised that TOTAL and G4S had left Yemen without any knowledge or notice”.
The list goes on, and goes beyond the security guards employed via G4S. Asked how he learnt that TOTAL and G4S had left Yemen in 2015, Sabri Al-Obaiy, worker for these companies for seventeen years, said that he got the information from one of his friends, who was working for TOTAL via another local subcontractor (Almaz), and who had himself been told of his lay-off through a text message sent by TOTAL on his mobile phone. This story is corroborated by an article written in 2015 by journalists from France 24, entitled “Total workers sacked by text in war-torn Yemen”, revealing in lengthy detail the outright contempt with which TOTAL had held official redundancy procedures, and how it had ignored the right of workers to due redundancy notices and compensation.
Later, your article explains how one of the Labour courts in Sana’a recently reacted to this case, with a judgement ordering the companies to pay the workers’ months of wage arrears as well as other rights: “The Yemeni Labour Arbitration Commission ruled that Total’s Yemen branch, Total EP Yemen, and G4S were responsible for back pay for more than 100 guards for a period starting in February 2016, according to a copy of the court ruling seen by Reuters. In its Jan. 31 ruling, the court also ordered both companies to pay end-of service compensation and other benefits, including a month’s pay for working during the Muslim month of Ramadan.”
Notwithstanding the fact that the amount of money requested from the companies in this judgement is below what the workers should get (especially considering the spiralling inflation and the huge amount of overtime work done by the workers), this court order clearly contradicts the companies’ claim earlier in the article. Indeed, why would the Labour Arbitration Commission order the companies to pay end-of-service compensation if, as both companies pretend, the workers were “properly compensated when official termination notices were issued before they left Yemen”? In the light of what has been stated above, only one conclusion is possible: these companies are lying through their teeth, and making use of the media to whitewash their deeds.
The article then says: “Total and G4S have disputed the guards’ claim to back salaries but confirmed their right to compensation.” This sentence is revealing, spelling out the two companies’ explicit defiance of the order from the Labour Commission in regard to back pay. One could argue this is their right to do so (that it is their legal right to rob the workers of over one year of salaries) since, as your article states earlier on, “The ruling is subject to appeal by both sides”.
What the article doesn’t say however, is that a first court order was already issued in December 2015, requesting the seizure and attachment of the companies’ assets and properties in Sana’a in order to pay the workers all their entitlements. An appeal to that decision was filed by G4S; and the Appeal court ruled in June 2016 against the company, confirming the workers’ right to be paid. Since this decision was never implemented, the workers decided to transfer the case to another Labour court, which issued the judgment referred to in Reuters’ article, in January 2017. In other words, the companies have been legally bound to pay the workers for a long time, but have just refused to do so – probably hoping that in a war-torn country with a collapsing state, an operational authority to enforce such decision would be a rare commodity.
Later, your article states, “Faris al-Sanabani, one of the Yemeni partners in G4S, said his lawyers had received no court order but the guards had been formally notified and paid for “six, even seven months beyond official termination”.
First of all, it might have been to all readers’ interest to know who Faris al-Sanabani actually is. Sanabani is not just a random “partner in G4S”. Sanabani is an influential and notoriously corrupt business tycoon, who was part of the close circle of the ex-Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Here is what an investigative article from “Your Middle East” wrote about him back in April 2013: “Faris al-Sanabani, former Press Secretary to President Saleh before his fall from grace, was also used as a proxy to the regime through his publications Yemen Today, Yemen Observer and Felix News Agency and the TV venture al-Aqeeq. Sanabani’s personal assistant told Your Middle East that his former boss had allowed funds to be “invested” in the newspapers and TV channel to the benefits of his wealthy backers, Gen. Yehia Saleh and Gen. Ahmed Ali Saleh. In 2012, Sanabani travelled to the United States and the UAE to, his assistant confessed, buy properties and invest funds on behalf of the Salehs. “He is actively helping the former regime to hide its money … He himself handsomely benefited from such a collaboration. With homes in Egypt and Dubai, Sanabani made sure he liquidated his interests in Yemen ahead of a long holiday,” said another assistant.”
Secondly, Sanabani’s allegation that “his lawyers had received no court order” is deliberate and utter falsehood. Not only did the lawyers “receive” the court order in question, but one of them, Alhakimi, actually put his signature on it. Since a copy of this document, signed by one of Sanabani’s lawyer, is in the hands of Reuters (see below, the signature in the middle at the end of the page), maybe such a spurious denial should have been verified before publication.
It is further reported, “Sanabani said the way G4S management went about leaving the country had left him vulnerable to both Yemeni law and angry guards who were been thrown into joblessness”.
This is rather interesting. Sanabani first says that the guards had been “formally notified and paid for six, even seven months beyond official termination”, suggesting that the procedure was lawful and fair. Then he goes on to say that “the way” G4S management went about leaving the country had left him vulnerable to both the law and the workers! Sanabani here tries to ride two horses at the same time, and fails spectacularly.
The way your article is framed strongly suggests that Sanabani is some sort of victim in the story. You quote his masterspin without even challenging its truth value. In his words, quoted verbatim in your piece, “I could not stand idle seeing the company fold and run a week before the end of the month, and with salaries unpaid. Local management received death threats and were dragged to jail over the lack of pay and I had to come up with the money to get them out of jail.”
As owner and part of the management of G4S Yemen when the company left in June 2015, Sanabani admittedly knew about the company’s plan to halt its operations. He apparently “could not stand idle seeing the company fold and run”…but still didn’t think necessary to tell the workers about it. When it comes to the claim that local management “received death threats and were dragged to jail”, it strongly looks like an attempt to turn the whole story on its head. Sanabani brought a new managerial team to run a fraudulent G4S, composed of Ahmed Alkhatib as general manager and Abou Mustafaa as vice-manager. Both are accused by the workers of having been involved in the killings of three of their colleagues on December 3, 2016, as well as in several death threats made against them. Since your article quotes Sanabani at length, balancing his arguments with some of the workers’ own words about the abuse and terror they have faced, would not have been out of order.
Finally, your article mentions the fact that Sanabani had arguably “reached compensation agreements with about 100, while the rest had refused to settle, insisting on a bigger package.” This is quite a euphemistic way of spinning it from Sanabani’s part. A better way would be to say that these companies exploited the vulnerability and desperate financial situation faced by about 100 workers and their families to buy their silence with peanuts. The others have refused to renege on their basic rights.
Indeed, the compensation received by these workers was of around 110,000 Yemeni Rials – i.e., the equivalent of $440, i.e. less than a guard’s monthly wage, and way below what is required under Yemeni laws under such circumstances. Incidentally, it is also less than what the CEO of TOTAL Patrick Pouyanne -who received a 25% rise in his pay last year- earns every fifteen minutes.
The TOTAL spokesperson quoted in your article argues that the employees of G4S were “fairly compensated with a package exceeding the requirements of the Yemeni laws”. Even in the case this person was referring only to the part of the workforce who has settled its conflict with the company, this statement would be highly questionable. If this particular settlement was as fair as it is claimed, why indeed did the companies try so hard to keep it secret, pushing the workers concerned to sign a ‘Settlement and Release Agreement’ stating that “the Claimant agrees not to make any press statement or to disclose any information to any media in relation to this Agreement”? A copy of this document was provided to us and can be seen below. This gag order is a veiled form of intimidation which sheds further light on the methods used by these companies in an attempt to cover up the tracks of their extortion.
The insinuation that the entire workforce, initially composed of 208 security guards, has been “fairly compensated” will sound even more of a cynical joke for the 115 remaining workers who are still working up till today under court-mandated duty to protect the sites of TOTAL seized by the court, and have not been paid for more than a year of work done – let alone been notified of any redundancy, nor compensated in any manner whatsoever.
While TOTAL and G4S register jumps in their profits, their rapacious role is destroying lives in a country already gripped by civil war, famine and economic collapse. As their lies get exposed and activists express their outrage from Hong Kong to Abidjan, the label of “corporate social responsibility” both companies try to veneer themselves with, is cracking from every part. Hence it is now high time for these companies to pay up.