Strikers threaten to paralyze country over wage hike issue

BEIRUT: Thousands of demonstrators rallied across Lebanon Thursday as a growing number of civil servants joined an open-ended strike to demand the immediate approval of a wage hike.

Though the open-ended strike gained momentum on its third day, Prime Minister Najib Mikati maintained that the government would not rush the referral of a wage increase draft bill to Parliament before it secures the necessary funds.

There is growing concern that the disruption of work in government departments could affect the revenues of the treasury, most notably the Value Added Tax Department, which generates more than $2 billion in income each year.

“The prime minister will not back down on his promise to refer a draft bill to Parliament, but at the same time he will not risk negative repercussions on the economy,” sources close to Mikati told The Daily Star.

“The government is looking for financing means, and Mikati has to take into consideration recommendations by the banking sector and Economic Committees,” the source added, referring to a group that represents the private sector.

Civil servants and public school teachers, who have accused Mikati of stalling the approval of a wage hike under pressure from the private sector, held a sit-in outside the Education Ministry building in UNESCO Palace.

Nearly 2,000 state employees participated in the 10 a.m. gathering that saw demonstrators block the main road for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, state employees in the south, Mount Lebanon and north Lebanon held simultaneous gatherings outside government serails.

The Union Coordination Committee threatened Tuesday to freeze work at a new government department each day until civil servants and public school teachers receive a wage hike.

UCC head Hanna Gharib announced Thursday the formation of a “strike committee for the capital Beirut.”

“The committee will meet on a daily basis to plan future steps. Before the weekend, employees of every ministry will have formed a strike committee,” Gharib told protesters.

Protesters blasted Mikati and the Economic Committees, accusing both parties of conspiring to deny them their rights.

The Economic Committees have rallied against the adoption of a wage hike, saying it would fuel inflation and widen the budget deficit, dealing further damage to an already slowing economy.

Mikati has asked the UCC for more time to coordinate with the Economic Committees to come up with a compromise solution.

“Let me do my job and I will promote the salary scale to the Economic Committees in a way that will reassure them,” he told As-Safir daily in remarks published Thursday.

Mikati plans to amend urban zoning regulations to allow for additional floors in buildings in return for higher taxes. The tax revenues would be used to finance the wage hike, which is expected to cost at least $1.2 billion a year.

“This escalation by the UCC is unjustified. A solution is needed and no one should be taking political advantage of the situation,” sources quoting Mikati told The Daily Star.

Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Association of Private School Teachers said the government should be held responsible for the strike and any ensuing consequences.

“The government should take responsibility for this open-ended strike,” Mahfoud said. “We have taken to the streets and we will not leave as tomorrow’s protest will be outside the Agriculture Ministry.”

In the coastal city of Sidon, around 700 teachers marched from the Sidon Serail to Central Bank Street, chanting slogans slamming Mikati and representatives of the private sector, as well as Central Bank Governor Riyad Salameh, who they described as “the protector of the Economic Committees.”

A member of the Teachers’ Association in Sidon said Mikati should immediately forward the salary scale to Parliament and threatened to paralyze the entire public education sector.

“No one should think that we will calm down, we will escalate our moves and Mikati should refer the scale to Parliament immediately because it is our right,” Ismat al-Qawwas said.

“They need to know that we can paralyze the country,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 22, 2013, on page 1.




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