Total workers sacked by text in war-torn Yemen

Ahmed Alramah, a driver for Total. Photo sent by our Observer.
Ahmed Alramah, a driver for Total. Photo sent by our Observer.

"Today is your last day at work”. In June, over a hundred Yemenis working for French petroleum giant Total learnt that they had been sacked when they received this text message. As Yemen descends into war and the economy falls apart, these workers are fighting to receive much-needed severance pay.

Yemen has been enveloped by war and chaos since last spring when the Arab Coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, intervened to stop the advance of the Houthi rebellion against the forces loyal to the former president.

The French group Total is the only foreign petroleum company still present in the country. The company employs about a thousand people and is involved in the exploitation of two hydrocarbon fields. After a rapid deterioration of the security situation in Yemen at the end of March, the company closed its offices in the capital, Sanaa. In April, Total announced that it would also halt the majority of gas liquefaction operations in the Yemen LNG factory, of which it is a 40% shareholder. The company decided to only produce enough gas to continue providing electrical power to the local population, according to a Total spokesperson.

The red line shows Total’s petroleum production and/or exploration activities within Yemen. Source.

On June 10, all drivers, security agents and maintenance staff who worked for Total in Sanaa learned that they had been let go. Since then, Ahmad Al-Ramah and his co-workers have been fighting to claim compensation for the layoffs. Their desperation is increased by the fact that the war has thrown Yemen’s economy into total chaos. However, two months later, the newly unemployed workers are no closer to reaching their goal as Total and the Almaz Group, a Yemeni company that recruits local personnel for Total, have been locked in a blame game.

"Today is your last day at Total, which has terminated its contract”

Ahmad Marah worked as a driver for Total. He lives in Sanaa.

On June 10, I received a short text message on my phone, informing me that I had been fired. It said: "Hello. Marouan Charqi from the Almaz group. Today is your last day at Total, which has terminated its contract. We will contact you soon in regards to compensation.”

"Redundancy texts" sent by Almaz Group to former Total employees. Screenshot sent to us by our Observer.

I was shocked to find out by text. I was even more surprised because it happened in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, when we were supposed to receive a bonus! When I called my coworkers, I found out that Total had fired over a hundred people working as service personnel.

"Some people signed. They needed money, so they gave in"

On June 24, we got another text from Almaz to finalise our redundancy. But the termination agreement that they offered us didn’t respect our rights, especially because they didn’t want to pay us our compensation in full. Some people signed the contracts anyway. They needed money, so they gave in.

I’m not blaming those people – the cost of living has risen exponentially since the war started, leaving us all desperate as we try to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. [Editor’s note: Food shortages coupled with soaring inflation rates have made even basic goods unaffordable for a large percentage of the population].

Those of us who didn’t sign decided to organise and my co-workers chose me to represent the group. Even those who did sign quickly joined us. We are demanding that our former employers pay us our remaining salaries, our bonuses for Ramadan and also our full compensation for having been made redundant.

"We sent them numerous emails, but they didn’t even respond"

Our lawyer told us that this redundancy is completely illegal under Yemeni labour laws. We are in the midst of a war. So, legally, this should be considered compulsory leave, not redundancy. Moreover, the employer is required to give its employees at least a month of advance notice and to continue paying severance pay for at least twelve months.

First, we tried to contact the Almaz group but they didn’t want to hear about it. They kept saying, “This isn’t our responsibility, you need to speak directly with Total.” Because of the war, Total’s management in Yemen relocated to Dubai. We emailed them on several occasions, then sent them letters.

At first, we still felt a lot of respect for and loyalty to Total, and we made that clear in our emails. But they didn’t even bother to reply. So we hardened our approach and referenced their violations of Yemeni labour law and reminded them of their responsibilities as an employer. We even contacted the union of Total workers in Dubai. They have tried to help us, but they haven’t gotten any response from Total management either.

These protesting workers staged a sit-in in front of the Total offices. Their banner says, “They started by plundering Yemen’s resources and ended by plundering their employees’ rights.” Photo shared by our Observer.

"We filed a formal complaint with the Labour Ministry in Yemen"

We organised several symbolic sit-ins in front of the empty Total headquarters in Sanaa in an attempt to get the attention of Total management in Dubai. But nothing changed. So we filed a formal complaint with the Yemeni Labour Minister. As a result, a Yemeni court ordered the seizure of all goods belonging to Total and Almaz in Sanaa. Police sealed off the Total buildings on August 3, but a week later, following a complaint by Total, this order was reversed. The court did decide to freeze Almaz’s funds until they have paid out what they owe to employees, but we still haven’t seen any money.

The Yemeni court’s decision to close the Total offices in Sanaa was marked in spray paint on the doors. (Photo shared by our Observer)

Total’s Sanaa offices after the Yemeni court’s decision to seize the buildings. (Photos shared by our Observer).

"Total and Almaz are playing the blame game"

So that’s where we are now – two months later. I tried to speak with Total’s lawyer during the latest court date but he refused.

“Speak with Almaz,” he said. I once again tried to contact managers at Almaz but they have disappeared off the face of the earth. The only person who answered the phone was very threatening. She again told me to “speak with Total.” Total and Almaz are just playing the blame game.

"Almaz is only an intermediary. They employed us to work for Total"

We are Total employees – it’s written in my contract. Almaz is just an intermediary. Otherwise, how do you explain the fact that I was able to move freely around the Total premises with my company badge, but when I was at Almaz, I had to ask for a visitor’s badge? Total needs to take responsibility and demand that Almaz pay us. A contracting company needs to make sure that its subcontractor upholds its obligations. It’s listed under article 31 of the Yemeni labour code.

This is a driving permit bearing the Total logo that was given to an employee. Photo shared by our Observer.

I hope that they won’t keep playing this game for a long time. Judicial proceedings could drag on for an eternity and in this war-torn country, we really need the money just to keep living…

Screengrab of a contract signed between Almaz Group and Ahmad. The text states that Ahmad is employed as a driver for Total in Sanaa. Photo sent to us by our Observer.

When contacted by France 24 to comment on all the accusations listed by our Observer, Total sent a short email response:

The offices of both Total and Yemen LNG are now closed. The deterioration of the security situation in the country since the end of March forced Total to reduce its operations to a minimum. Yemen LNG decided to stop its production and exportation operations as well and, before doing so, warned both its customers and shareholders.

According to a source close to Total, the company has refuted all responsibility as they consider the workers who were made redundant to be employees of Almaz. This source, however, told France 24 that “Total has direct responsibility for these employees. The French company depended on Almaz, which is owned by Yahya Mohammad Abdullah Salah, the nephew of Ali Abdullah Salah [Editor’s note: former president of Yemen, who served between 1990 and 2012, and who is now allied with the Houthi rebels], to give them political weight for its activities in the country".

He added: "From what I understood, Almaz never contributed to the social security of these employees [as companies in Yemen are supposed to do]. Total pretended that nothing was going on in order to maintain the good graces of President Salah’s nephew. But it is Total’s responsibility to ensure that its subcontractor is fulfilling its obligations."

The situation of these Yemeni Total employees evokes recent debates in the French legislature discussing the responsibilities of French multinationals. Katia Roux of the nonprofit organisation Peuples Solidaires-ActionAid France explains:

Parent and contracting companies need to be held responsible for human rights violations and environmental damage that could be caused by their branches, subcontractors and suppliers abroad. In France, a decisive step was taken on March 30 with the adoption at first reading by the National Assembly of a proposed law that would require this. However, this bill could die if it is not soon examined by the Senate.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Dorothée Myriam Kellou.