It is in the nature of capitalism to turn every human disaster into an opportunity to make profit. The war in Yemen has not only destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians; it has also created a landscape whereby multinational corporations can more easily behave like outright gangsters in robbing their workers.
The French energy giant multinational TOTAL has been active in Yemen for more than 25 years. The protection of its facilities and installations has been carried out by workers employed as security guards via a subcontract with the British company G4S.
G4S is the largest security firm in the world, and of notorious reputation. It was named a “serial abuser of human rights” by the British trade union UNITE for its involvement in countless scandals and human rights abuses around the world, ranging from the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo bay to its complicity with the Israeli State forces’ occupation of Palestinian territories.
At TOTAL facilities in Yemen, exploitative working conditions were the norm. Guards were often on 12-hour or even 24-hour shifts, despite the Yemen labour code requiring working days not to exceed 8 hours.
“I learned on TV that TOTAL had left Yemen”
After having made huge profits through the exploitation of Yemeni workers for years in peacetime conditions, the two companies have used the circumstances of the war for a “hit-and-run” wage robbery. They assumed they could get away with it thanks to the international media blackout on Yemen and to the dysfunctional and collapsing state infrastructure in the country.
TOTAL and G4S halted most of their activities in Yemen in 2015, but did so with utter disregard for the prevailing labour legislation. Under Yemeni labour law, the employer is required to give workers at least 30 days of advance notice of dismissal, and to pay severance pay for damages sustained as a result of the contract termination. TOTAL and G4S left without giving any compensation, nor even any notice to the 208 security guards who were working under their authority.
Rabbi Atiah, who worked as security agent for eleven years, explains: “I did not know that the two companies had left Yemen. No notice from any competent authority or the government reached me 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”.
Some local workers employed by TOTAL, such as the drivers hired via a local group called Almaz, were notified of their redundancy via text message. The G4S guards were not notified at all. “In the end of December 2015 I learned watching TV that TOTAL had left Yemen”, argues Mohsin Omar Almashdali, also a longstanding TOTAL/G4S security worker.
Following a judicial procedure in December 2015 before the Labour Arbitration Commission of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, the premises of TOTAL were seized. The two companies were ordered to pay the workers’ wages and other rights until the termination of their contracts, and the guards were ordered to continue protecting TOTAL buildings until this materialises. But the court decision was wilfully ignored by both companies. Local authorities have done nothing to enforce these decisions, and workers have tirelessly fought ever since to demand their rights.
Some workers, under duress and in a desperate situation, have accepted money to stop the struggle. However, 115 of them have continued to work, unpaid, until this very day, and to fight for the wages and other rights they are entitled to. They have stood firm in their heroic struggle, for example by holding several street protests in Sana’a, despite the ban on demonstrations imposed by the Houthi rebels who took power in the capital at the end of 2014.
They have also courageously resisted the mafia-like intimidation methods used to silence them, which has included death threats and kidnappings by armed gangs directly connected to the management of these companies.
Terror used against workers
We asked Sabri Al-Obaiy, who has worked as security guard for TOTAL since 2000, if he had received any threats because of his involvement in this struggle. “Yes, an armed gang tried to kill me”, he answered. “Yes, many times,” his colleague, Abdulalim Hamoud Mohammed, who has been a security guards’ supervisor for this company for eight years, echoed. In fact, none of the workers we have spoken to seem to have escaped these pressures. One of them was even abducted and tortured in an unknown place for two days.
Last December, Mohammad Alzubide, Ali Al Sanhani and Abdurhaman Kieran, three security guards in their twenties, were shot dead by an armed gang as they were working on court-mandated duty protecting a TOTAL compound involving 50 electricity generators in Sana’a. In possession of a ruling impounding the company’s assets to protect their rights and salaries, the six workers present on the site refused to let the armed crew take the place over; and half of them were gunned down as a result.
Not the slightest doubt surfaces when the workers are asked who ordered the killing of their colleagues. Sabri says “I am sure that TOTAL and G4S are responsible because they are thieves, they robbed the people’s rights and the resources of my country. The killers have not been arrested because they follow individuals with a strong influence.”
Abdulalim seconds this: “Those responsible are TOTAL and G4S, because they wouldn’t want to pay the wages and respect labour rights. The killers are running free because TOTAL and G4S are paying a lot of money to hide the crime; they are also exploiting the war.”
According to the guards who were eye-witnesses to the December shooting and barely escaped death themselves, the leader of the armed gang is a man named Abou Mustafaa Mohammed Jameel, who happens to be the current vice-general manager of G4S Yemen. With him was allegedly another man called Mohammed Kilah, a relative of Faris Sanabani, the de facto current owner of G4S Yemen. Sanabani is a rich magnate with a British passport, media holder and former press secretary of the ex-Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who helped the latter’s clan to stash its money abroad.
G4S denies any links with the entity presently operating under its name and logo in Yemen, arguing that it stopped all operations in the country in June 2015. Sanabani, one of the shareholders, appointed a new management team after that date to carry on the business, apparently without G4S’s consent. Contacted to clarify, Caroline Skinner, the Regional General Counsel of G4S Middle East & India, explained in an email that “The entity trading in Yemen is not a G4S Company. The company is trading under Yemen management using the G4S name unlawfully and in breach of demands requiring them to cease.”
This might well be true, but does not exonerate the original company from its responsibilities in having rode roughshod over the rights of its local workforce – nor does it explain why, to the best of our knowledge, G4S has not sued the fraudulent company.
Could this be related to the fact that the mercenary job conducted by the “fake” G4S is suitably serving the interests of the original company, in silencing the voices of workers who have grievances towards that very company? In any case, indications of a direct involvement of these firms in using violence against the workers abound.
The local deputy General manager of TOTAL in Yemen, Mohammed Ajeenah, is mentioned in a police record dated from February 2016 for having used “weapons and threats of assassination” on previous occasions against security workers, via a Houthi armed militia directed by Ajeenah’s brother, Abu Al-Ezz. Then, the workers were forced out of a villa under their guard which was part of the property of TOTAL, seized by order of the court – despite Ajeenah’s claim to the contrary. Ajeenah tried to get rid of the workers from what he considered to be his personal property.
A genuine, independent investigation involving workers’ representatives is necessary to formally connect the dots, and in order to apprehend and prosecute the individuals guilty of having stolen the three young workers’ lives. Incidentally, since the blood of Mohammad, Ali and Abdurhaman has been spilled, threats to the other workers have not stopped. For example, on January 13, 2017 at 9 pm, two armed men riding a motorcycle tried to assassinate the worker Ahmed Baha in front of his house, but missed their target.
These companies’ powerful networks of influence have provided them with a license to kill, facilitated by the climate of lawlessness in crisis-ridden Yemen, where greasing the palms of police or judicial officers in charge is child’s play.
Sadly, the official trade unions have not been immunised from these corrupt practices. The union leaders’ dereliction of duty is one of the main factors which pushed the workers to reach out to the CWI for support in their dispute.
-“What has been the reaction of the trade unions in Yemen?”, we asked Sabri.
-“They didn’t care”.
In a situation where many Yemeni workers, in both the public and private sectors, are struggling with issues of unpaid wages, this is nothing short of scandalous. Yet there is growing outcry about the TOTAL/G4S case, spearheaded by the CWI’s involvement in an international campaign of protests, combined with a mounting anger among many employees of state-run institutions who have not been paid their salaries for months. This has forced even leading officials of the General Federation of Trade Unions of Yemen to get involved – rhetorically, of course. Practically, they have shied away from doing anything of substance to help the workers.
A member of Yemen’s Shura Council, Saleh Jolaidan, has agreed to represent and support the fighting workers from the start. “Saleh Jolaidan defended us, although at a great cost in terms of his personal interests”, Abdulalim explains. “The CWI transported our voice onto the international field”, Rabbi adds.
A united front of struggle involving all Yemeni workers fighting for wage arrears, echoed by an escalating campaign of international dimensions by the workers’ and trade union movement, would help break the wall of silence that the corporations and authorities alike have tried to keep until now about this infamy. This would bring the employees of TOTAL and G4S closer to the full satisfaction of their demands: the arrest of the killers and the immediate payment of all the workers’ wages and rights.
The CWI, for its part, will not stop pressuring and exposing these companies until they pay out the last penny due to the workers concerned.
In a country hit by an economic embargo and an explosion of food prices, where half of the population is on the verge of famine, this has become a life-and-death issue. The workers who are victims of TOTAL and G4S’ criminal practices, along with their families who depend on their income, are facing a particularly dire situation. Some of them have seen family members, including children, starve to death; others, are incapable of paying their mortgages and have lost their homes. Some have sold their furniture to survive. “We are scared of hunger. Ramadan is coming. TOTAL should pay now”, Abdulalim says.
Factoring in social and health insurances, risk bonuses, and annual holidays which were not paid before 2015, the two companies owe today the equivalent of about $27,000 to every worker. This is less than 1% of the annual wage of the “King of cost cuts”, Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of TOTAL, who is nicknamed this way for his ruthless approach in cutting production costs in the company’s units. These two contrasting figures are not unrelated: it is to further enrich this big business elite that workers have been robbed and left to starve in one of the poorest countries on earth.
Until today and since their employers halted their operations, the workers have received no communication whatsoever from the two companies concerned. TOTAL has not even bothered to respond to our multiple attempts, since last December, to contact them in regard to this case.
Both corporations have hidden behind a case of “force majeure” to justify the suspension of their activities in Yemen. Yet, as revealed lately in press leaks, the same “force majeure” does not seem to apply to TOTAL when it comes to extracting oil in South Yemen in collaboration with the Saudi regime – a central player in the war ravaging the country. In other words, TOTAL claims to have discontinued most of its operations due to the war, but works with Saudi forces to steal oil in the south – while at the same time, working with their enemies, the Houthis in Sana’a, in order to put down unpaid workers!
What is happening to the TOTAL/G4S workers in Yemen does not result from a few rotten apples breaching business ethics, but is inherent to a system where labour is exploited to inflate the wealth of a few private corporations.
In fact, the local staff from other foreign companies previously operating in Yemen, such as the workers of the Norwegian oil company DNO, have faced very similar scenarios of unlawful lay-offs and wage theft. The sense of impunity of such companies has to be stopped, in Yemen and anywhere else. That is why it is in the interest of workers around the world to stand in solidarity with the courageous struggle of the TOTAL/G4S workers.
Cedric Gerome belongs to Committee for a Workers’ International