Union rallies teachers, public sector to participate in strike

BEIRUT: A teachers’ union Wednesday declared a nationwide general strike Thursday to protest the government’s failure to send the salary scale draft to Parliament despite a preliminary Cabinet decision to raise certain taxes to fund the wage increase for civil servants and public school teachers.

The Union Coordination Committee called on all public and private schools and government agencies to abide by the strike and threatened to escalate the situation if Cabinet refrained from sending the higher wages bill to the Parliament immediately.

“We call on all public and private school teachers to observe the strike and not be intimidated by the threats of the private school administrations to fire the insubordinate teachers,” the statement said.

It is not clear if all private school teachers will comply with the request of the UCC, although most of these teachers fully support raising their salaries substantially.

However, the head of the Catholic schools said all institutions under its administration would remain open, though he did not say if students would attend classes on the day of the strike.

Last week only a handful of private schools in Beirut remained open during the general strike called by the UCC.

The UCC said it refused to finance the salary increases through taxes that affect ordinary citizens, claiming the increment could be easily funded if the Cabinet cut waste, combated corruption and improved tax collection, most notably from Beirut Port.

Emerging from the Cabinet meeting, Information Minister Walid Daouk told reporters the ministers agreed in principle to raise the VAT on imported cars from 10 percent to 15 percent; increase taxes on interest on customer deposits from 5 to 7 percent; and increase the fiscal stamp fee on construction permits.

A source told The Daily Star that the Cabinet contemplated raising tax on luxury items such tobacco and alcoholic beverages.

“Raising taxes on luxury items should in principle generate annual revenue of $70 million a year.

But the government will consider other taxes to secure sufficient funds for the higher wages of public sectors employees,” the source told the paper.

Daouk said the Cabinet would hold another meeting on Oct. 31 to finalize the taxes and sources of funding.

Most ministers expressed their displeasure at the behavior of the UCC and stressed that the teachers and civil servants should exercise self restrain and avoid escalating the situation.

“Honestly speaking, working under pressure is unacceptable. We are addressing the new generations [students]. We have to be patient and discuss all matters in order to preserve financial and economic stability,” Daouk said in the news conference. It is not clear how much the salary scale increase would cost the treasury but most observers estimate a cost of more than $1.5 billion.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati has repeatedly said Cabinet has no intention of raising taxes on limited-income families, although some economists are skeptical that the government will be able to raise enough cash to fund the salary scale.

A source told The Daily Star the Cabinet would hold a special meeting Monday to speed up the administrative appointments, adding that most of the ministers feel that any delay on this issue would affect the performance of most government departments.

Before the Cabinet meeting, the newly appointed head of the Higher Judicial Council and Attorney General were sworn in.

Earlier in the day, taxi drivers protested as the union called a strike over several demands, including a cap on the price of fuel and increasing NSSF benefits for drivers.

Participation in the protests were low, with only around 50 cars gathered in Dora, north of Beirut, with taxi drivers raising the Lebanese flag and hooting their vehicles’ horns.

One of the drivers issued calls over a microphone for other cab owners to join the strike. A statement issued by the taxi drivers’ union was also distributed in Dora, encouraging taxi drivers to join the strike.

“Today is your day to claim your rights,” said the statement, adding that the strike might be followed up by other protest movements.

In Eklim al-Kharroub, southeast of Beirut, taxi drivers responded to the union’s call, with a large number of taxi drivers gathered in a parking lot in Wadi al-Zineh on the coastal road, the National News Agency reported.

The NNA said that the drivers issued a statement demanding to have “their basic rights, just like other groups of the Lebanese society.”

Earlier this week, Lebanon’s taxi drivers union issued a statement calling for a strike following an unsuccessful meeting with Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi to set a ceiling for the price of gasoline.

The statement reiterated the association’s demand for a LL25,000 ceiling on 20 liters for gasoline and LL20,000 on diesel.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 18, 2012, on page 1.




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