BEIRUT: An open-ended public sector strike over wages crippled many private schools in Lebanon for the first time Tuesday as the work stoppage by civil servants entered its second week.
The majority of private schools in Beirut and other parts of the country were shut Tuesday and Education Minister Hassan Diab warned that official exams for Grades 9 and 12 could be postponed.
As in previous days, rallies were held outside government buildings led by the Union Coordination Committee, which represents public school teachers and civil servants.
The protests in the capital Tuesday centered on the Economy Ministry, where some 500 teachers and civil servants shouted slogans against Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government.
The strike over the Cabinet’s failure to refer a wage hike proposal, which began Feb. 19., has paralyzed most government services across Lebanon as most public employees turn up to work but refrain from carrying out their duties.
The Cabinet argues it needs more time to ensure the financing of the wage hike before referring it to Parliament.
Following a meeting with Mikati Tuesday, Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi said the Cabinet still needed more time.
“We have to reconsider some figures,” he said, adding that "eventually we should develop a mechanism that is suitable for everyone after we introduce slight amendments to the pay scale so that it will have little impact on the private sector,” he said.
The Economic Committees, a body that represents the private sector, fiercely oppose the wage hike, saying it will only fuel inflation and widen the budget deficit.
Speaking to reporters, Safadi also said that the Cabinet could not set a minimum wage for public sector employees higher than that of the private sector.
“What would the private sector do then? They would definitely call for a pay raise,” he said.
Many private schools close their doors to student Monday.
In a statement late Monday, the UCC said sit-ins would be held Tuesday in front of private schools “whose owners threaten teachers and prevent them from taking part in the strike or in demonstrations.”
Lebanon’s Catholic schools decided Monday to close in light of threats by various unions should they open.
Father Butros Azar, the secretary-general of Catholic schools, denied Tuesday that the call for the closure of Catholic schools was in solidarity with the UCC strike action.
“The closures are not due to the strike,” he told The Daily Star.
“A circular was distributed to Catholic schools yesterday [Monday] asking them to close Tuesday after the hullabaloo that happened outside some private schools,” he added.
He said many teachers and pupils in schools east and north of Beirut had been harassed by protesters Monday, adding that the entrances to some schools had been blocked in a bid to force them to close.
Azar blamed the government for not taking action to stop the acts of harassment.
“Where is the government? Where is the state?” he asked.
There were reports that protesters briefly blocked the entrance to four schools north of Beirut – two in Jounieh and two in Jbeil – early Monday.
The head the Association of Private School Teachers, Nehme Mahfoud, told the Daily Star Sunday that teachers would seal off the entrances to private schools starting from 6 a.m. Monday to make sure none of them receive students.
In its statement Monday, the UCC warned that it would escalate its action Wednesday if the government failed to refer the controversial pay scale to Parliament for approval.
“Monday’s and Tuesday’s actions are nothing but preparations for Wednesday’s major demonstration that will kick off at 11 a.m. from Barbir square toward the Grand Serail,” the UCC said.
The UCC also renewed calls on parents to refrain from sending their children to private schools in line with the strike action.
Meanwhile, the education minister warned Tuesday that official exams could be postponed.
“There is a big possibility that official exams are going to be postponed," Diab told reporters after talks with Mikati at the Grand Serail in Downtown Beirut.
Some private schools also voiced concern the strike might threaten the dates of official exams.
“I’m afraid the exams will be postponed as public school students have lost a lot of academic days due to the ongoing strike,” said a private school administrator in Beirut who spoke to The Daily Star on condition of anonymity.
Safadi, following his meeting with Mikati, said the wage scale would not be on Cabinet’s agenda Wednesday.