BEIRUT: Civil servants and public school teachers Friday maintained their pressure on the Cabinet for the fourth day running as most government offices suspended operations to press the authorities to pass the controversial revised salary scale.
Leaders of the Union Coordination Committee, which represents public school teachers and civil servants, said they would hold a sit-in near the Value Added Tax Department Saturday and another rally near the Central Bank building Monday.
Compared to Thursday’s mass rally in front of the Education Ministry, the number of protesters who marched Friday toward the Agriculture Ministry and the Adnan Kassar Economic building was small. But organizers said the size of the demonstrations would be quite significant in the coming days.
But what has drawn the attention of observers is that the protesters, who were initially comprised mostly of public school teachers, now include a growing number of civil servants.
Strict security measures were taken during Friday’s protests around the Agriculture Ministry and the Adnan Kassar building, which houses the headquarters of the Economics Committees, a leading private sector group.
The UCC threatened to escalate its action. “Tomorrow [Saturday] we will stage an open-ended sit-in outside the VAT Department headquarters,” group head Hanna Gharib told protesters rallying outside the Agriculture Ministry.
He said the union had held an “important” meeting to decide on the next steps.
“The meeting this afternoon aimed to discuss a stepped-up action plan starting Monday that will include a sit-in outside the Central Bank and nearby ministries including the Information, Tourism and Interior ministries and the Chamber of Commerce,” he added.
Workers at Beirut Municipality also took part in the protest.
Gharib accused members of the government of seeking to abort a sit-in near the VAT building last Wednesday, but stressed that these attempts had failed.
“The VAT staff has responded positively to the strike despite these pressures. They [the government] should understand that we took to the street to ensure that our demands are fulfilled, and I promise we will continue to demonstrate and hold sit-ins until the government complies with our demands,” Gharib told the crowds.
The union leader reiterated that the UCC would never accept a compromise on their demands and would not agree to the salary hike being paid in bits.
“They are trying to pay these pay raises in instalments. I tell them that if they continue to come up with excuses not to pay the salary hikes then we will continue to escalate the situation across the country,” Gharib said.
Small demonstrations took place in several areas across Lebanon, including near the home of Prime Minister Najib Mikati in Tripoli, where public school teachers staged a rally.
Security forces did not allow the protesters to block the road to Mikati’s house, and the teachers eventually left the area.
The UCC leaders emphasized that most private school teachers would take part in the general strike Monday, denouncing moves to discourage their participation in the protests.
“I have a letter from one of the schools in the north which warns the teachers not to take part in the strike,” Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Association of Private School Teachers, told the crowds that rallied near the Agriculture Ministry.
“This warning will cost the school owner dearly, because the law allows all private school teachers to demonstrate and strike,” he said.
Mikati has maintained that the government would not rush the referral of a salary increase draft law to Parliament before the Cabinet can secure the funds needed to cover the pay raise.
Some analysts have voiced concern, however, 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.
But a Finance Ministry source told The Daily Star that the bulk of VAT proceeds is collected from customs authorities at the airport and port and through commercial banks.
“The strike will not really affect the government’s revenue, but the work of the citizens and merchants will probably be affected,” the source explained.
The International Monetary Fund and the private sector warned that a hasty decision to raise the salary scale at this critical stage could potentially have a negative impact on the budget deficit and inflation.
Mikati, under pressure from workers and the private sector, has promised to secure funds for the salary hike without raising taxes on consumers and companies.
Observers believe Mikati will send the salary scale to Parliament, knowing that it has little chance of being approved.