By Sami Aboudi
DUBAI, March 31 (Reuters) – A dispute over unpaid wages in Yemen involving two global corporations has illustrated the disarray wrought by the near total pullout of foreign firms from the war-shattered country.
A Yemeni labour court has ordered France’s Total and Britain’s G4S to pay millions of riyals ($1=330 riyal) in back pay and compensation to security guards who accused the two firms of abandoning them after the war sucked a Saudi-led Arab alliance into battle against Iran-aligned Houthi militia.
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.
The guards say the two firms’ exit left their families without food and resulted in a complicated standoff in which at least three guards were killed in unclear circumstances while securing a Total Yemen compound where valuable generators and vehicles were kept.
The plaintiffs in the case have received international solidarity including from the Total labour union in France.
Their case highlights one of the indirect consequences of the war for thousands of Yemenis who had earned a living working for foreign investors in one of the poorest Middle East states.
The ruling is subject to appeal by both sides but with the country torn by war and lawlessness, some of the guards were sceptical they would be able to cash in on the decision.
Former Yemeni of other foreign firms that have left the country said they had also struggled to make ends meet as funds received in compensation begin to run out while few other jobs are available.
Victor al-Hakimi, who worked for Canadian firm Nexen Energy before the war, said staff received six months pay as well as their compensation when the company left shortly after the conflict erupted in 2015.
“But life has been very difficult since,” Hakimi told Reuters by telephone. “There are no opportunities now.”
Another Yemeni who worked for a Western diplomatic mission said some have found jobs with humanitarian organisations struggling to keep the country afloat with half of the population on the verge of famine. “But most cannot find any jobs,” said the Yemeni man, who asked not to be named.
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.
Total and G4S have disputed the guards’ claim to back salaries but confirmed their right to compensation.
Faris al-Sanabani, one of the Yemeni partners in 4GS, 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”.
But with the departure of the two companies, the guards have been hard-pressed to meet their families’ basic needs.
“I had to wash cars to feed my family,” said Ali al-Qadi, who is married with two children, adding he was bringing home up to 2,000 riyals ($6) a day. “It has been very difficult.”
A Total spokesperson said TEPY made sure that Yemeni employees of 4GS were “fairly compensated with a package exceeding the requirements of the Yemeni laws”.
G4S, which had operated in partnership with regional investors from Oman and Yemen, confirmed it withdrew from Yemen in June 2015 but said one of the local partners had stayed on.
“The company now trading in Yemen using the G4S name and logo is doing so without the permission of the G4S group and it is in breach of notices requiring it to cease,” Nigel Fairbrass, a G4S spokesman, told Reuters in an emailed message.
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.
“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.”
Out of the 208 guards, Sanabani said he had reached compensation agreements with about 100, while the rest had refused to settle, insisting on a bigger package. (Reporting by Sami Aboudi; editing by Mark Heinrich)