Over 200 guards say they were not paid after Total and security firm G4S left Yemen in 2015. Three guards were killed in the political fallout. Activists in several countries demand the oil giant take responsibility.
Why was Total in Yemen and what is the controversy?
Total has been exploring and producing oil and gas in Yemen for over 25 years.
The energy firm hired G4S in the last decade to provide security for its assets – from property to petrochemical facilities to personnel, an oil company contractor told TRT World.
G4S hired 208 Yemenis as security guards in Sana'a, the capital. Police documents showed some of them had been guarding Total property for ten years.
When the conflict between the Houthi supporters of former president Ali Abdulah Saleh and Saudi-supported government of President Abdrabbah Mansour Hadi peaked in 2015, Total scaled down its presence in Yemen.
G4S said it had ceased all operations in Yemen as of June 21, 2015. However, a financial report up to December 31, 2015, showed that it held a 25 percent stake in Group 4S Security Services Yemen Ltd.
As foreign workers and companies pulled out of Yemen, the guards kept protecting Total assets. They thought they were still employed by G4S.
However, the security company said in an email that it was not their organisation but another entity that was "unlawfully using the G4S name and brand."
The guards said they have not been paid for over a year. Three have been killed protecting Total assets.
"He complained many times that [Total] property would be attacked, but would say he could defend it," the widow of Mohammad Kassim Al Zubaydi, who was killed on the job, said, choosing to withhold her name. By all accounts, the guards saw it as their responsibility to protect the assets of a company which they said owed them a salary.
Who is responsible for paying the guards?
A few months after G4S said it left Yemen, the employees realised they were at risk of losing their income as they were working but without clarity as to whom they were actually working for. If the companies had left, they wanted severance packages. If not, they wanted to be paid for work done.The guards took the matter to an arbitration body.
Yemen's Labor Arbitration Commission decided that Total was responsible for paying the guards as the principal employer under local labour law, and froze some of its assets in Sana'a.
The commission asked the minister of oil to enforce this in December 2015 and requested the guards continue protecting assets until the company settled their dues.
By March 21, 2016, the entity calling itself G4S in Yemen absolved itself of the responsibility for paying the guards. A lawyer representing G4S sent a letter to the commission – seen by TRT World – that said the company could not continue to pay the guards as it had not been paid by Total "for over ten months."
Saleh Jolaidan, a Yemeni parliamentarian who has power of attorney for 100 guards to negotiate with Total and G4S, said the guards had no support from anyone and have many mouths to feed.
He said the guards started getting harassed by influential locals who were formally or informally running the assets left behind by the multinational companies. They are still being intimidated, a guard calling himself Sami confirmed in an earlier interview.
Who are the local power brokers behind G4S and Total in Yemen?
A powerful group of businessmen in their early 40s – part of former president Saleh's elder son Ahmed Ali's circle – were considered the local patrons of international firms in Yemen, an oil contractor told TRT World.
G4S had one of these local power brokers, named Faris Sanabani, said a contractor, requesting anonymity. "He was the money behind G4S. He has a lot of money and has the political connections and enabled G4S to get contracts."
Faris was the press secretary to former president Saleh and is behind several media platforms. His former personal assistant accused Faris of actively helping the Saleh regime to hide money through various media holdings.
A screenshot of an email sent by the G4S general counsel to Jolaidan states that after G4S withdrew, "the business has, as we understand, been carried out by one of the shareholders, Faris Sanabani, who appointed a new management team."
According to the contractor,"Total is also connected to the Saleh regime and employs some close business associates of Ali and his business group."
And so, as the guards tried to demand their salaries from the multinational firms, they ended up taking on powerful locals instead.
One of the properties – described as a "villa" – frozen by the court was used by a man identified as Mohammad Ajinah. Jolaidan and police documents suggest Ajinah was linked to Total in Yemen.
After the commission froze Total's assets, Ajinah sent armed Houthi rebels to the property to harass the guards, according to police witness statements. The armed men rounded up the guards at least twice in February 2016, removing them from the property.
People interviewed by TRT World said the new deputy minister of interior, a man they referred to as Abu Karrar, was also involved in the strong-arm tactics of the power brokers.
Total did not respond to emails.
How did three guards end up dead?
Armed men surrounded one of the seven locations protected by the guards on December 3, 2016.
The men – Houthis, according to Jolaidan and a police witness statement – got 32-year-old Zubaydi first. "A sniper hit him in the head," Jolaidan said. His colleague Ali Al Sanhani rushed to his help and was killed next. The third guard killed was Abdur Rehman.
"He called me at 1:00 pm and told me the property was still surrounded, but he thought it would be the usual – armed men would surround the place for a while and then leave," Zubaydi's wife said.
"At 5:00 pm, people called us to tell us they heard gunfire. We called him but there was no answer. Then later that evening, people called to say they were bringing his body home."
Like Jolaidan, the victim's wife maintains the men who would harass the guards, the men who killed Al Zubaydi, Al Sanhani and Rehman were the Houthis.
The case is still under investigation by the police.
So what are the protests about?
Jolaidan approached Cedric Gerome who is part of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), a socialist collective on December 7, 2016. Gerome reached out to other activists and the media to expose the problem.
Gerome believes the movement will gain momentum and help the guards get justice.
"Wars destroy not only people's lives but also provide more leeway for companies and governments alike to behave in a way they could not do in ‘normal' times," Gerome said.
CWI plans to hold coordinated protests in several countries in coming days.
"We want the companies to pay all their wages and financial obligations vis-a-vis the workers," Gerome said via WhatsApp. "We want the people responsible for this injustice to be held accountable for what they have done and we also want a transparent investigation into last December's killings, so as to bring to justice to the killers and those who have ordered them."
Where is Total in all of this?
They have been silent but continue to pump out oil and gas in Yemen.
A news outlet in Iran – which has competing interests with Saudi Arabia and is accused of tactically supporting the Houthis – said Total had set up an oil base in Kharkhir in Yemen, near the Saudi border.
Saudi Arabia leads the coalition which provides military support to the government in Yemen and has been accused of dozens of civilian casualties.
The Yemeni oil minister acknowledged in January 2017 Saudi Arabia has played a role in making gas-rich areas such as Shabwah "safe" for investment.
"Shabwah is the big jewel. The biggest money spinner that is going to impact the elite who emerge from the [Yemeni] conflict is gas – and gas," the oil contractor said.
"That's why Saleh is keen to hold on to towns near Bayhan (in Shabwah). Saleh wants to hold on to it as it gives him access to disable the flow of gas from Block 18 to Belhalf (coast on the Gulf of Aden). If the country is annexed (into blocks), he can turn off the gas to get money."
With additional reporting by Zaher Alghazzwai