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Protests in Lebanon over AUB’s cutting 850 jobs amid coronavirus, economic crisis

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The American University of Beirut (AUB) has drawn fire over its decision to cut 850 jobs, most of them in the university’s medical center, at a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet and coronavirus numbers are rising.

The downsizing announced last week includes 650 staff laid off and another 200 whose contracts will not be renewed or who will retire and not be replaced.

On Monday, dozens of AUB students, laid-off staff, and other staff supporting them protested in front of the medical center decrying the layoffs and calling for AUB President Fadlo Khuri to “get out.”

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“I have two children, and I am responsible for them,” Zahra Wehbi, a nurse in the medical center’s nursery, one of those to receive the layoff notice, told Al Arabiya English.

Wehbi said she had worked at the medical center for 23 years and considered the staff “like my family,” but said the layoff decisions had been made through an unfair process.

“The people who are good, they go out,” she said. “The people who have somebody’s support, they stay here.”

Khodor Haydar, another laid-off employee, who had worked in housekeeping for 33 years, said the loss of his job “was really a shock… as if someone was sitting and someone came and threw ice water on him.”

Although he will receive two year’s salary as severance, Haydar pointed out that its value has devalued due to the currency crisis and said he worries that at his age, and in the current environment, he won’t find new work. Under Lebanese law, laid-off employees typically receive a lump-sum severance payment based on months of service, but do not receive any form of ongoing unemployment or pension payments afterward.

A man walks at American University of Beirut's campus (AUB), as one of the Arab world's oldest universities faces its worst crisis since its foundation, in Beirut, Lebanon, May 7, 2020. (Reuters)
A man walks at American University of Beirut's campus (AUB), as one of the Arab world's oldest universities faces its worst crisis since its foundation, in Beirut, Lebanon, May 7, 2020. (Reuters)

“They laid us off, and now no one is going to hire us. There’s no work in the country,” he said.
Yasser Shaib, a professor of medicine at AUB and physician in the medical center, still has his job but joined the protest to support his colleagues.

“I truly believe that this was a move that was uncalled for,” he said. “It came in the worst possible time. It was done in the worst possible way, and it affected the most vulnerable population of the working force in the medical center.”

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As for the potential impacts on the operations of the hospital, Shaib said, “I’m pretty confident that this will lead to a major disruption of operations in the med center.”

The layoff decisions were made at an administrative level, he said, and were “not discussed or vetted with any of us, the people who are working and we know if we can spare someone or not.”

In a statement released Monday, AUB President Khuri wrote that administrators “have worked diligently to identify where job reduction could be realized without jeopardizing operations and allowing AUB to remain affordable, all while continuing to provide transformative education and world-class patient care. These efforts, led by the administration and in collaboration with the Workers and Staff Syndicate of AUB, substantially reduced the number of jobs lost from those previously predicted to 850.”

He added, “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. Before reaching this point, every avenue was explored to cut costs and increase efficiency on campus and at the medical center, including closure of underperforming university units.”

Khuri noted that the university had sought additional funding from the US and Lebanese governments and from private sources and that many highly paid faculty and staff have been foregoing a portion of their salary for months, adding that he had been giving back 25 percent of his own salary.

The university had also been criticized for the show of force by Army and police personnel who were stationed at the center when the layoffs were announced.

In his statement, Khuri maintained that “the security presence was made necessary after credible external threats were received earlier in the week, which led to recommendations for high-level security,” but acknowledged that it “should have been better managed.”