Michael Wright, the CEO of Lebanon-based retail chain Spinneys, is due to appear in court on Wednesday over allegations that employees were fired from the grocer for being members of its trade union.
The charge, which has been filed by three ex-employees, is a breach of Article 329 of the Lebanese Criminal Code. A guilty verdict could result in a maximum sentence of one year in prison.
Spinneys, based in Beirut, employs about 1,500 people across eight hypermarkets in Lebanon. It is majority-owned by Dubai-based Abraaj Group, which this year has been reportedly looking to sell the company, which is not connected to the UAE operation.
Article 329 states that it is a crime to prevent any Lebanese citizen from exercising his or her civil rights or duties, when coupled with a threat of force or other means of physical or moral coercion.
Englishman Wright told Arabian Business via telephone from Lebanon that he denied the charges. He added that he does not plan on attending the hearing in person and expects the judge to dismiss the charge.
“I’m aware of the case, it just has no grounds whatsoever,” he said. “This is an entirely politically motivated attack. We had an attempted campaign by an ex-politician who has tried to create a Spinneys union against the will of the staff and failed in doing so. He has taken it very personally.”
The case against Wright has been filed by former employees Samir Tawk, Miled Barakat and Elie Abi Hanna.
Wright has insisted that the removal of all three employees had nothing to do with their union activity, with both Tawk and Barakat removed from their posts for gross misconduct.
Activist group Friends of Spinneys Union said that the dispute between Wright and employees first emerged after a ministerial decree to raise minimum wage from 500,000 Lebanese pounds to 675,000 Lebanese pounds was passed in February 2012.
Nahas Charbel, who was Minister of Labour at the time and now campaigns on behalf of sacked Spinneys employees, claimed that it was at this point Spinneys began harassing employees.
“The CEO of Spinneys decided not to implement this amendment to the minimum wage and issued internal memos saying this was a very bad decision,” he told Arabian Business.
The group said a petition to get Spinneys to abide by the decree attracted 120 signatures, before Wright began pressurising workers to withdraw their support or be fired. “[Wright] decided to counterattack by pressurising the guys who signed the petition... and almost all of them withdrew from the petition aside from one or two persons,” Nahas claimed.
It was at this point that Tawk was fired by the company, it is claimed, leading to protests outside of the retailer’s Achrafieh branch.
Spinneys, whose CEO Wright said that it has always abided by Lebanese labour law, eventually implemented minimum wage for its employees in July 2012.
Wright told Arabian Business that Spinneys immediately introduced minimum wage for some of its employees, with others being "phased in for cashflow purposes" over the following months, who were then paid retrospectively.
In the same month, Spinneys employees, including Barakat, filed a request with the country’s Ministry of Labour to officially form a trade union.
Nahas claimed that at this point that Spinneys began harassing employees who applied for membership to rescind their application both before and after the union was granted permission by the government. Nahas said that most of the 260 workers who applied for membership withdrew their applications for fear of their employment being terminated.
Shortly afterwards, Barakat was fired from Spinneys, although Wright claimed that his dismissal was for gross misconduct for which he had received several prior warnings.
The International Labour Office, a UN agency which monitors labour rights worldwide, and trade unions body UNI Global Union have previously written to Wright expressing concern over Spinneys’ treatment of unions and failure to implement minimum wage, respectively.
Spinneys boss Wright claimed that no employees were forced to leave the union. He told Arabian Business that "95 percent" of those that had applied for membership were from the same store, whose manager had "alienated the staff". "We moved him out and replaced him with a better one," he said. Wright said that employees were also upset with non-payment of medical bills via social security, which he claimed was the fault of Lebanese government, rather than Spinneys. Once the company had cleared these issues up, Wright claimed, the majority of employees withdrew their application to join a union.
Depsite this, Nahas claimed that the issue has evolved from an initial dispute over pay to one over basic civil rights. “This is a direct assault on human rights. [Spinneys] will have to respond to the penal court,” he said.
Nahas, who resigned from the labour portfolio in early 2012, is himself the subject of a defamation case filed by Wright, the first hearing over which took place in May. Nahas estimated that there had been “12 or 13” cases lodged both by and against Spinneys employees in the last 18 months.
Spinneys was originally founded in Egypt in the 1920s, but was relaunched in Lebanon in 1998. The grocer has outlets in Jordan, Egypt and Qatar, and has plans to expand into the Gulf and Africa. The company spun off its Dubai business in the early 2000s, and that operation is now a separate entity.
Abraaj Group, the largest shareholder in Spinneys, declined to comment on the future of Wright when contacted by Arabian Business.
Abraaj has previously refused to comment on speculation that it is looking to sell the asset, with media reports suggesting that Dubai conglomerate Majid Al Futtaim could be interested in acquiring Spinneys.For all the latest retail news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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