Unions stir ‘intifada over corruption’ for pay hike

BEIRUT: Civil servants, teachers and labor unions will take to the streets across Lebanon Wednesday to protest against Parliament’s failure to ratify a wage hike after Parliament’s Joint Committees was unsuccessful in securing the funds for the proposed salary scale.

A Cabinet session, scheduled to discuss new public appointments, was overshadowed by the threat of the strike.

Addressing the Cabinet at Baabda Palace, President Michel Sleiman said the issue of the salary scale was “very delicate” and needed to be addressed carefully by Parliament because it was linked to the state budget.

“Parliament must work to achieve a balance between spending, benefits and revenues because this matter is related to the state budget and the livelihood of every citizen and not only of a civil servant,” Sleiman said, according to Information Minister Ramzi Joreige who read a statement after the meeting.

The president’s remarks came shortly after the Union Coordination Committee called on civil servants and teachers in both government and private schools to observe Wednesday as “a day of intifada (uprising) to liberate the state from corruption and thefts” in response to the failure of Parliament’s Joint Committees to endorse the salary scale.

“Tomorrow will be the day when we respond to the careless attitude of the joint parliamentary committees. ... Tomorrow will be the day of intifada over corruption,” the head of the UCC, Hanna Gharib, said at a news conference following the committees’ meeting.

The parliamentary meeting, chaired by Deputy Speaker Farid Makari, began shortly after 11 a.m. and ended around 2 p.m. after divisions over sources of funding could not be bridged.

“Adjourning the meeting without reaching an agreement after two and a half years and without setting a date for the next meeting is just a farce,” said Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Private School Teachers Union, which will participate in Wednesday’s protests.

A parliamentary source told The Daily Star that discussions to reach an agreement over resources to fund the wage hike had been postponed until after a two-day legislative session scheduled to begin Wednesday.

The source said the committees could meet as early as Friday.

“The joint committees agreed to follow up talks on ways to fund the salary scale. However, the exact date for the next meeting requires ... consultation with Speaker Nabih Berri,” Makari told a news conference.

Sources close to the Joint Committees said the issue of a VAT increase remained a major point of contention.

Lawmakers were deliberating at least two proposals put forward by Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, including increasing VAT from 10 percent to 12 percent across the board, or to 15 percent on certain luxury items.The sources said the committees were divided over the issue. In addition to raising VAT, discussions also touched on 18 proposals made by the government to solve the stalemate over the salary scale.

Business leaders have warned against raising wages without securing the proper mechanism to fund the salary hike, which is expected to cost more than $1.6 billion each year, saying it would spell doom for the economy.

Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, who attended part of the parliamentary debate Monday, recommended that the pay hike be paid in installments over a five-year period, expressing fear that it could trigger inflation and increase the prices of commodities.

But the Union Coordination Committee vehemently rejected Salameh’s proposal, insisting that the salary hike be paid in full.

Head of the General Labor Confederation Ghassan Ghosn urged Parliament to approve the wage hike without implementing a VAT hike and called on all labor unions to join the Wednesday protests. He rejected the argument that increasing wages would widen the budget deficit and increase inflation, blaming successive governments for squandering public funds.

“Eighteen years have passed since our wages were last adjusted, while the consumer price index rose 121 percent,” Gharib said.

Long-time tenants are also expected demonstrate Wednesday, in protest of a contentious draft rent law passed last week. Under the new law, rents regulated by the prior rent law would increase over six years until they reached 5 percent of the current market value of an apartment.

More than 200,000 apartments are estimated to be rented under the old law, which governs all leases that were agreed before 1992.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 09, 2014, on page 1.




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