BEIRUT: Official paperwork ranging from filing taxes to renewing residence permits has ground to a halt as civil servants abstain from work in a bid to press the Cabinet to pass a new salary scale to the Parliament.
Since public sector employees and teachers went on strike Feb. 19, most government services have been halted. Leaflets posted at most public offices read: “The strike goes on.”
At the Value Added Tax Department, which has been the target of almost daily sit-ins since the strike started, the picture is no different.
Instead of taxpayers, tens of employees gathered Tuesday in the building’s lobby as a decades-old leftist anthem played in the background.
The lobby sit-in has been going on almost every day, participants said.
“It will go on until our demands are met,” said Ghassan Mahdi, a spokesman for the protesters. “We do not aim to harm citizens’ benefits. In fact, we continue to accommodate very urgent transactions and even VAT revenues are being collected by banks.”
While companies may be able to pay some of their VAT dues at banks, other tax offices including those for property and inheritance taxes, where taxpayers have to follow up on transactions personally, are almost crippled.
The Finance Ministry said Tuesday: “Taxpayers can submit their paperwork through all the branches of LibanPost across Lebanon to avoid fees from delays in submitting paperwork to relevant tax departments.”
The ministry added that property sale transactions could be also submitted directly to the real estate registration offices, without the need to attach the appraisal for the value of properties. These estimations are usually conducted by Finance Ministry staff – who have joined the strike.
“Citizens can pay fees based on the nominal values on their sale contracts, and can later pay additional fees [if the property was estimated at a higher value than reported in contract],” the statement said.
Mahdi denied that the strike would cause citizens to pay fees, or even that it would affect the treasury’s revenues.
He said the Finance Ministry would exempt taxpayers from any fees caused by the strike.
Real estate agencies have a different view. The strike, several brokers told The Daily Star, has caused disruptions to necessary paperwork both for real estate transactions and for work permits needed for foreign workers.
Joe Ibrahim, an agent at Plus Brokers, said the strike had indirectly slowed an already sluggish real estate market. Land owners, for instance, have been refraining from selling land plots, in anticipation of a decision on a key measure proposed to fund the wage hikes, he said.
If passed by the Cabinet, the proposal will allow real estate developers relaxed zoning limits in return for fees and a set of environmental standards, which would further raise land prices within Beirut, according to Ibrahim.
Other real estate agents, however, said they were able to proceed with most paperwork needed albeit through ‘indirect’ means – through connections inside the concerned ministries.
A client, for instance, was given financial clearance a few days ago in spite of the strike in the Finance Ministry department in charge of issuing the clearances, an agent told The Daily Star.
Several Lebanese University students said they had been unable to obtain transcripts or conduct other transactions for the past two weeks.
At the vehicle registration offices, the situation finally improved Tuesday with employees agreeing to proceed with paperwork for the first time since the beginning of the strike.
The step came after hundreds of car dealership owners demonstrated Monday and over a concern that owners of cars confiscated for traffic offenses would pay unfair fees, an employee told The Daily Star.
At the Labor Ministry, the few wary employees who attended their offices said the ministry was closed and most staff remained on strike.
“People can send their papers by LibanPost and we will finish all the needed paperwork. But we will not return the files to citizens until the strike ends,” an employee said, declining to be identified.
The employee said that expired residence permits for foreign domestic workers and laborers had been extended by the General Security till after the strike is concluded.
But for Moussa, the owner of one of the many recruitment agencies in the vicinity of the ministry, the strike has been very bad for business. He refused to give his family name in order not to infuriate “his friends” at the ministry, where he sat and sipped coffee with the building’s guards.
“I am getting clients who want [to hire domestic workers] on a daily basis, but all I can tell them is that I will call after the strike is over,” he told The Daily Star. “I am losing money.”
A police officer guarding the facility interjected.
“Moussa, you can wait for few weeks until the wage scale is referred to Parliament,” he said. “And people who want to hire maids, for sure can wait,” he said. “Even public servants can wait [for the raise].
“But the teachers, who do not have access to bribes or kickbacks, are the ones who really cannot wait anymore.”