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Union vows immense escalation of protests to demand wage hike

Teachers and civil servants protest in front of the Labor Ministry in Beirut.

BEIRUT: The Union Coordination Committee vowed Friday to start a week of “exceptional” protests Monday in another bid to pressure the Cabinet into passing a new salary scale to the Parliament.

“[The government] gambled on [teachers] getting tired, but we will not grow weary or bored,” head of the Private Teachers Association Nehme Mahfoud told protesters massing near the Labor Ministry in Shiyah, in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

“We will not leave the streets until the new salary scale is passed,” he said, adding: “It will be a week of immense escalation.”

Mahfoud told The Daily Star that private school teachers were gearing up for a total strike by the beginning of next week.

He estimated that some 90 percent of private school teachers would go on strike Monday. Mahfoud claimed that about half of the country’s schools remained closed Thursday and Friday.

The Bank Employees Association, which has been demanding the renewal of an expired collective labor agreement for over a year, has started coordinating with the UCC, Mahfoud added.

Head of the association in Beirut and Mount Lebanon Assad Khoury told The Daily Star that the union would be taking escalatory steps by next week if ongoing mediation by the Labor Ministry fails to bring the Banks Association to agree on renewing the contract.

“But of course, we would not jump into a strike directly. We would start by organizing sit-ins and demonstrations, and if they do not agree on the Labor Ministry offer, we will be eventually forced to go on strike,” he said.

The group, he confirmed, was in coordination with the UCC and would stand firmly behind their demands. “The UCC has established itself as the key labor group. We will work together and coordinate efforts,” he said.

The collective contract, which still remains effective in the view of the employees association, is gradually being disregarded by banks after it expired two years ago, Khoury added. He said several banks had extended the working hours of employees without reimbursing them for overtime work. A yearly wage increase of 3 percent has been also overlooked by several banks, he added.

As the labor unions agreed on escalatory steps, government efforts to secure funding for the wage increases received another setback Friday when a key ministry said revenues expected from a new real estate tax had been highly overstated.

Public Works and Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi downplayed Friday revenues expected from Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s proposal to allow real estate developers to add an additional floor in return for a state fee.

“Some sides gave imaginary numbers for revenues with estimates reaching $1 billion or $1.5 billion. Where did the figures come from?” he told reporters following a meeting with Mikati.

He said the Urban Planning Council, under the authority of his ministry, was not responsible for estimating state revenues.

Aridi said Mikati’s proposal was being drafted by the Urban Planning Council as a modern project that relaxes zoning limits for green developers complying with strict environmental and urban planning standards.

He said that while some real estate developers might be interested in the project, that might not be true for others. “We cannot expect fixed revenues from the project,” he added. “The new salary scale will put heavy fixed expenses on the budget and the government must come up with fixed revenues,” he said. “We cannot rush into things based on arbitrary calculations like what has happened.”

An unofficial ministerial meeting Thursday had failed to agree on a plan to fund the new public sector salary scale, which is expected to add a combined increment to wages of at least $1.2 billion a year.

The five ministers who attended the meeting opposed taxes suggested by Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi, prompting the minister to say his colleagues are forestalling the issue as his ministry wrongly took blame.

Public sector salary expenditures already increased to $2.4 billion in the first 10 months of 2012, $460 million more than the same period in 2011. The sharp increase was a result of a government-mandated wage increase, which was awarded in February 2012.

Safadi has suggested paying the wage hike in installments, a pitch which labor unions have already rejected outright.

Since the strike started 11 days ago, the UCC has protested daily in front of key government institutions across Lebanon, managing to bring public schools and many private schools to a halt. The biggest protest gathered thousands last Wednesday at the Grand Serail in Downtown Beirut.

Beirut Municipality employees held a demonstration Friday, vowing to back the UCC in demanding the wage increase. They also called for offering contract employees at the municipality full employment.

Public servants and teachers also protested in front of the Beiteddine Serail in support of the UCC demands.

Hundreds also protested in Tripoli, promising to travel to Beirut Wednesday for a key demonstration.

“The demonstration Wednesday could be the biggest in the history of the Lebanese labor movements,” said the statement by the Tripoli chapter of the UCC.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 02, 2013, on page 1.

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