Ministers slam planned private sector strike, urge cooperation

File - Adnan Kassar, head of the Economic Committees, meets with President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace on Thursday, March 7, 2013. (The Daily Star/DalatiNohra)

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s caretaker economy, tourism and industry ministers Friday criticized a strike planned by Lebanon’s Economic Committees next week, as business and labor associations said they would join demonstrations Wednesday.

During an extraordinary meeting, the three ministers suspended wide-ranging consultations scheduled for Monday with the private sector aimed at exploring strategies to shore up the struggling economy.

“The meeting was meant to make policy recommendations ... but when the Economic Committees took the decision to go on strike, [we suspended the meeting because] they had already made their choice,” caretaker Economy Minister Nicolas Nahas said.

Caretaker Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud said forming a new Cabinet was important to help safeguard the economy, but differences between regional powers were presenting a barrier to creating a government.

“Tourism has declined significantly and tourism is now restricted to some Syrians and Iraqis who come to Lebanon because they have no other options,” he told reporters.

“But what I want to say is that no one is against forming a Cabinet ... but the barriers to its formation are not in Lebanon ... if the strike would have helped to form a Cabinet, we would have had no reservations at all,” he said.

Caretaker Industry Minister Vreij Sabounjian echoed Nahas and Abboud.

“What if we close for one or two days? Will it change anything? The repercussions [of regional turmoil] on Lebanon are enormous and everyone knows it,” Sabounjian said.

“I believe many business owners will not stop working ... and we should reach solutions through cooperation between all sides,” he added.

By Friday, the majority of Lebanese business owners’ associations had issued statements supporting the strike.

“We call on all [restaurants] both members and non-members, to join this national action and close down from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m.,” the most recent statement by the Association of Restaurant Owners said.

“Tourism is by far the most damaged sector from the political developments and security incidents ... our future and the future of our children is endangered.” the statement added.

Several labor unions also voiced support for the strike but did not say they would join the action planned by the Economic Committees.

There have been strong differences between labor groups and the Economic Committees over the handling of several issues, including planned public sector wage increases.

The Union Coordination Committee called for protests on the same day but stopped short of voicing support to the Economic Committees.

“We call for the formation of a Cabinet capable of protecting civil peace and national unity as well as meeting demands to improve living conditions including enacting the new salary scale,” the union said.

A statement issued by the National Union of Workers and Employees echoed that of the UCC.

“The action by the Economic Committees comes to reaffirm our position that it is necessary to form a Cabinet capable of facing dangers to Lebanon,” the statement said.

The deteriorating economic conditions have been the subject of several high-profile meetings earlier this week gathering caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh and caretaker Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi.

The Economic Committees have said that the situation has not been as bad “since the Civil War” and some members even warned that Lebanon could face a fate similar to that of Cyprus and Greece.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 31, 2013, on page 4.




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