BEIRUT: An unofficial ministerial meeting Thursday failed to open a window of hope for a compromise solution between the government and labor unions that vowed to uphold a 10-day-old open-ended strike until they receive a wage hike.
The ministerial meeting, which took place under the media radar, ended in another standstill as members clashed over Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi’s proposed tax raises to fund the salary increase.
All five ministers who attended the meeting opposed his plan to fund the wage hike, Safadi said, accusing his colleagues of forestalling the issue and giving the false impression that the Finance Ministry was responsible for the delay.
Safadi also suggested paying the wage hike in installments, a pitch which labor unions have already rejected.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who backs Safadi’s proposition in a bid to contain inflation and avoid a widening budget deficit, chaired the meeting before leaving to hold prescheduled talks with his Hungarian counterpart who is on an official visit to Lebanon.
The premier’s office didn’t issue the official statement that usually follows a ministerial committee meeting.
Ministerial sources told The Daily Star that the committee tasked Minister of State Marwan Khairedine with drafting a new study outlining mechanisms to fund the wage hike that is estimated to cost the treasury around $1.2 billion annually.
Civil servants and teachers, united under the umbrella of the Union Coordination Committee, demand that the wage hike be paid in full and insist that the Cabinet refer an unamended version of a previously negotiated draft bill to Parliament for ratification.
As the ministerial committee meeting was discussing the salary scale at the Grand Serail, some 300 protesters rallied outside the Finance Ministry’s VAT department in the Mathaf area before holding a sit-in outside the Directorate of Revenues office.
Head of the strike committee at the VAT department Walid Shaar said civil servants would not back down and would continue to escalate their movement until their demands are met.
“To Minister Safadi we say no amendments concerning the salary increase, no discounts, no postponement and no installments,” read one banner held by demonstrators.
“The cost of the wage hike remains much less than what you squander,” some protesters shouted.
Before protesters moved to downtown Beirut where they held another gathering outside the Department of Real Estate, some made an attempt to block the main road near the VAT building but UCC head Hanna Gharib intervened to disperse demonstrators.
The protests, which were accompanied by tight security measures, have gained momentum over the past few days, paralyzing a number of government departments, all public schools and several private ones.
Despite Mikati’s repeated attempts to appease the protesters by promising to pay the wage hike as soon as funds are secured, thousands of teachers and civil servants marched Wednesday toward the government headquarters at the Grand Serail.
The UCC called for another sit-in Friday outside the Labor Ministry building in the neighborhood of Shiyah.
Adnan Kassar, the head of the Economic Committees, which represents bankers and companies in Lebanon, has invited the UCC leaders to cast aside all forms of street protests and sit with the government and the private sector to find a solution for the salary scale.