Hundreds of Lebanon's prestigious AUB medical centre staff vow to fight back after mass layoffs

Hundreds of Lebanon's prestigious AUB medical centre staff vow to fight back after mass layoffs
Former employees have initiated legal action after the American University of Beirut arbitrarily fired 850 medical staff.
5 min read
30 July, 2020
There is widespread public support in Lebanon for their plight. [Getty]
Hundreds of staff, who accuse the American University of Beirut's Medical Centre (AUBMC) of arbitrary dismissal, initiated legal action this week to reject what they labelled the "humiliating and insulting" decision to sack 850 employees.

Dozens of nurses and technicians who were fired earlier this month gathered in front of AUB's medical gate on Tuesday to protest the decision, part of a series of demonstrations to express their outrage. Interviews with former employees have gone viral on Lebanese social media, with widespread public support for their plight.

AUB, one of the Middle East's oldest academic institutions, fired 1,500 staff in June, while the university's medical branch laid off hundreds of employees this month.

AUBMC's management said the decision was taken as a result of the economic crisis currently engulfing the country, with AUB's president, Fadlo Khuri, expressing regret. 

"We fully understand the dire impact of the layoffs given the disastrous state of Lebanon's economy, but it was precisely those circumstances that made it impossible for AUB to avoid this severe measure," he said. 

But a cross-section of employees told The New Arab that AUBMC's management exerted both psychological and emotional pressure to coerce them into signing their termination letters, using "unscientific and unprofessional" criteria to justify their sacking.

AUB, one of the Middle East's oldest academic institutions, fired 1,500 staff in June, while a further 850 medical employees were laid off in July

During Tuesday's protest this week, Marwan Al Orabi, an AUB staff member who has been designated as a spokesperson to represent the former employees, addressed protestors and the media, calling for the decision to be reversed in light of a "deadly economic crisis."

AUB's Human Resources department was reduced to handing out termination letters, Al Orabi said, and it failed to assess annual performance appraisals or any other basic evaluative criteria. 

The employees are now submitting an appeal with the help of legal advisors to nullify the termination agreements and prevent any future dismissals from taking place. Al Orabi was arbitrarily dismissed this month but has not yet signed his termination agreement. 

The American University of Beirut's Medical Centre fired 850 employees in July. [Getty] 

"It was an unfair decision. We're suing them in court before the Urgent Matters jurisdiction and arbitration as well. We have agreed with some good lawyers to submit our legal petition and present our case. We are also taking this up before the International Labor Organization (ILO) through the National Union of Labor and Employees Syndicates and the Legal Agenda," Al Orabi told The New Arab.

"We are also addressing our issue, in parallel, with international labour and human rights organisations. AUB didn't take legal advice and just threw us in the street, but we are doing it in a professional way and seeking legal advice." 

The mass sacking of employees will impact thousands of families in Lebanon, and violates the spirit of AUB's motto, portrayed at the university's gates: 'That they may have life and have it more abundantly'. 

The mass sacking of employees will impact thousands of families in Lebanon

"My alma mater abandoned me to a harsh and unknown future. I was laid off as one of the 850 employees due to the Lebanese economic crisis. A number, not a human, we were thought of as the real burden of AUBMC," Souha, not her real name, told The New Arab

"Without prior notice or even discussion, and during direct patient care, the system logged me off. I thought it was a technical error, yet when others were able to log in, my fear grew, and the layoff became a reality. I contacted my supervisor, but we were both laid off. What audacity, smashing all the core values that AUBMC and AUB had set".

Another employee, who wished to remain anonymous, told TNA that he had never taken sick leave during his 20-year career at AUB, despite being in treatment for cancer. He called the decision to fire so many employees "shameful".

Former employees have held a series of protests against the decision. [Getty]

Ghada Sharafeddine, a nurse for 33 years at AUBMC, was shocked when her three-decade career was brought to an end in a short phone call. "Three decades of loyalty and dedication vanished up in the air in a simple call. They called me in on a weekend to go and collect my termination letter. I refused," she said. 

"After the weekend when I visited the HR department, they handed me a piece of paper without even saying thank you. We haven't received our severances. They said after Eid al-Adha. We are not going to sign the approval letters until we've collected our end-of-service benefits, since we are taking them to court over arbitrary dismissal," Sharafeddin told TNA during a protest at AUB. 

Her co-worker Ibtehaj said that all of the employees had served AUBMC dutifully despite wars, terrorist attacks, and the recent October Revolution protesting a corrupt political elite and stagnant public services.

"We provided all patients with all the required medical, emotional and human care especially in pediatrics and ICU sections. On that dark Friday, I was called to pick up my termination letter. I was even told sorry! We signed powers of attorney to lawyers to represent us in legal action against AUBMC," she said. 

For many employees, they simply want to find out why they were fired, rather than the opaque reasoning given by AUBMC.

"We need them to tell us why! Our performance review was constantly good and productive. Had the reason behind our dismissals been the economic crisis and Covid-19, AUBMC wouldn't have posted new job openings," another employee, Feryal Younes, told The New Arab.

Bassam Zaazaa is a freelance journalist based in Beirut

Follow him on Twitter: @bassamzaza