On 4 August 2020, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at the port of Beirut, killing at least 204 people and injuring at least 6,500 more. An estimated 300,000 people were also made homeless.
Ripping through the heart of downtown Beirut and port, the blast also killed several dockers and seafarers. In a blow to the port community’s ability to respond to the disaster, the explosion also destroyed key union offices.
In the four months since the blast, dockworkers through their unions have been extending their solidarity to the people of Beirut as they rebuild their lives and communities.
“As soon as we heard the horrific news, we as a global union family knew we had to come together and do everything we could to help ease the pain and suffering of our Lebanese brothers and sisters,” said Paddy Crumlin, Chair of the ITF Dockers’ Section.
Crumlin said a majority of the solidarity support fund raised by the ITF, the ITF Seafarers’ Trust, and union affiliates from across the world, went directly to assiting families who lost a family member, or were injured, in the disaster.
“The priority was getting hardship relief to the families of the dockers and seafarers who were injured or killed. Hundreds of families were facing the double blow of losing their loved ones and then the prospect of losing their homes as the bills piled up.”
Support was also needed by local unions whose offices were crushed in the blast. Funds raised helped reconstruct the seamen’s union, transport union’s and Beirut Port Workers’ Union’s offices, Crumlin said.
“We also wanted to ensure there was a contribution to rebuild the union offices on the docks. ITF Dockers unions have always been the place where our communities come for support and advice – they’re the heart of the docks. The rebuilt offices now mean that Beirut’s unionised dock workers have that appropriate place within the heart of their new docks to help everyone, and stand up for workers,” said Crumlin.
Another portion of the funds collected by the ITF and its sister organisations was used to buy PPE (personal protective equipment) for seafarers and drivers in the aftermath of the blast, as the Covid-19 coronavirus raged on around them.
Bilal Malkawi, ITF Arab World Regional Secretary, worked closely with the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL) and Beirut Port Workers’ Union to distribute funds and support the rebuilding process.
“We have nothing but pride in the tremendous solidarity shown by ITF Dockers unions and their members, who came to the aide of Lebanese dockers and seafarers when it was most needed.”
“Having spoken with some of the families who have benefitted from this support, it is clearly making a real difference and preventing this horrific tragedy from causing even more pain,” said Malkawi.
The head of Beirut Port Workers’ Union, Dr. Bchara Al Asmar, said “The solidarity support meant a lot to us and the families of members who lost a member, or members who got injured. The ITF as usual show what solidarity means in the trade union language. On behalf of all union members, and ITF affiliates in Lebanon we appreciate the support given by the ITF family”.
Several unions, including Crumlin’s own union, the Maritime Union of Australia, and the ILWU Canada were among those who provided support.
ILWU Canada President, Rob Ashton, said his members felt it was vitally important to support their Lebanese sisters and brothers. “They know the dockers family is a global family. We live by this creed: ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’. When they bleed, we bleed,” he said.
William E. Adams, International President of ILWU, whose union also contributed to the support fund, said, “I am proud of the response of our members, as well as the response from members across the ITF Dockers family, in contributing to the support fund. As dockers, we know that solidarity has to be backed up with action.”
Reflecting on the humanitarian effort to support workers affected by the disaster, Paddy Crumlin said ITF Dockers were always there for each other in their time of need.
“When it comes to Beirut, the ITF Dockers family came together in an incredible show of international solidarity. Since 1896, we have had a strong and proud tradition of solidarity. ITF Dockers can hold our heads high knowing we have once again honoured that tradition.”