As Saad Hariri visits Paris, Lebanese PM's debts to French workers linger
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As Saad Hariri visits Paris ahead of his hotly anticipated return to Beirut on Wednesday, hundreds of laid-off French employees of Saudi Oger, the Lebanese PM's construction and public works firm, are demanding millions in unpaid salaries.
The matter of contention is a nagging problem for the Saudi-Lebanese dual national, who arrived in Paris on Saturday on the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron, the latest chapter in a curious saga of conjecture and recriminations since Hariri announced his resignation out of the blue on November 4 from inside Saudi Arabia.
“I find it crazy that the red carpet be rolled out for Saad Hariri without first requiring that he immediately pay the millions that he owes to French employees, considering that he and his family are sitting on colossal personal fortunes,” Caroline Wasserman, who is defending the interests of some 75 of the 240 laid-off French workers, told Agence France-Presse on Friday. The company is said to owe the ex-employees about €15 million.
Numerous petitions have been filed in the affair with a labour court in Bobigny, northeast of Paris. “French jurisdiction is competent since the employees had French contracts from the start and because the headquarters of Oger International, which is part of the same group, is located in Ile-de-France”, the greater Paris region, the lawyer told FRANCE 24 in July.
During a previous visit to Paris on September 1, Lebanon’s businessman prime minister had committed in conversation with Macron to “resolve the problem”. In the aftermath of that pledge, however, no progress had been made.
On Saturday, after Hariri’s latest visit to the Élysée Palace, the French presidency said it was “closely monitoring” the issue of indemnifying the French employees concerned and that the Saudis “had committed to paying the rest of the indemnities” that had not yet been paid.
A company heavily in debt since 2015
The Saudi Oger group is at the core of the Hariri family fortune. Saad Hariri took the helm of what was then a flourishing business in 1994. Founded in 1978 by Hariri’s father Rafik, the billionaire former prime minister of Lebanon who was assassinated in Beirut in 2005, the firm benefitted in particular from excellent relations with the Saudi monarchy.
Falling oil prices and the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, however, changed everything. Orders faded and the Saudi state froze large contracts, including those of Saudi Oger.
The group quickly fell heavily into debt and saw its credit run dry. The company has since been unable to pay its 50,000 employees, staff comprised of nationals from 30 countries.
Aside from the money the ex-workers are demanding, French radio and television channel France Info revealed on Saturday the extent of debt the group contracted with French social welfare institutions. More than €5 million are reportedly in play in that respect.
France Info catalogued the sums owed in detail: €1,196,000 to the Fund for French Citizens Abroad (CFE), €962,000 to Axa for health insurance contributions, €2,147,000 to Pro BTP, which handles the affected employees’ private pension plan, and finally €720,000 to Pôle emploi, France’s agency for jobseekers.
Beyond those legal proceedings, the Saudi firm’s French subsidiary has yet to resolve its own financial problems. Oger International’s headquarters in Saint-Ouen, north of Paris, today looks like a ghost town. Of its 700 employees, only 120 survived a restructuring plan launched this year after the company went bankrupt. French daily Le Parisien reported that a takeover plan by a Jordanian businessman may be in the works.
Expat workers’ nightmare
In July 2017, FRANCE 24 spoke to one of the former employees involved in the lawsuit against the group.
“The problems began in 2015 and the unpaid salaries piled up, but internally we were being guaranteed that Mr. Hariri would do what was necessary, that the group would recuperate the money from the Saudis,” said the employee, “Etienne” (who asked that his name be changed to protect his anonymity). “In reality, they strung us along for nine months promising that we would be paid bit by bit and we naively, because the same problem had occurred in 2013 and was resolved fairly quickly, believed them.”
Etienne was dismissed in July 2016 after 15 years with the group in Saudi Arabia. Today, he is still waiting for the settlement of outstanding accounts he is owed, a sum he estimates at more than €120,000 in indemnities, unpaid contributions and bonuses.
Without income, some French families could no longer reimburse loans they had contracted in France. “So they borrowed in Saudi Arabia to cope with the situation, but they could no longer leave the country before having repaid the bank,” Etienne explained. “We were caught in a spiral because of these amounts that the company owed us. We told ourselves that if we left the country, we would never be paid and we would lose everything.”
The French Embassy in Saudi Arabia eventually intervened and obtained a partial compensation payment for its nationals from Saudi authorities, as well as their repatriation.
The 240 laid-off French employees represent only a small fraction of the 5,000 Saudi Oger workers left by the wayside.
“We, the French, are lucky compared to our Indian, Filipino, Pakistani, Senegalese, Portuguese, Spanish and Moroccan colleagues; they were treated like dogs,” another former employee told Agence France-Presse.
Hoping to make progress on a settlement, the French employees’ lawyers are due to meet with Macron on Thursday. But they will have just missed Hariri, who announced he will be returning to Lebanon for the country’s Independence Day the day before.
This article has been translated from the original in French.