BEIRUT: The public sector’s controversial salary scale has sent shivers down the spines of families of private school students who staunchly oppose the wage hike because it could lead to raise in already-high tuition fees.
Committees representing parents of children attending Catholic schools across Lebanon accuse the government and private school teachers unions of using their children as “hostages” in their years-old confrontation with the state to attain salary hike.
Enraged by repeated calls for strikes and demonstrations the parents committees are planning to file a lawsuit against Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Private School Teachers Union, for using their children to pressure the government into approving the salary scale, according to Toni Nissi, general coordinator of the parents committees of Catholic schools in the Metn region. The schools are private Christian educational institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church in Lebanon.
“The parents committees have tasked a law firm to begin preparations to file a lawsuit against Nehme Mahfoud on the pretext of holding their sons hostage in his demand to push the state to approve the salary scale. This matter is banned by law,” Nissi told a news conference held by the Catholic schools’ parents committee on the eve of Wednesday’s strike.
“Enough is enough. Parents are no longer able to pay more after tuition fees have doubled over the past five years,” he added. He warned that if strikes continue, parents might stop paying the tuition fees for their children.
Michel Bahous, general coordinator of the Catholic schools’ parents committees in Beirut, warned that the approval of the salary scale, which is estimated to cost the cash-strapped government more than $1.6 billion annually, would leave thousands of teachers jobless as a result of the closure of many schools.
“The Parliament’s endorsement of the salary scale will lead to the closure of 80 percent of private schools, while the remaining 20 percent will face a constant deficit,” Bahous told The Daily Star Wednesday.
“As the parents committee of Catholic schools, we oppose the Union Coordination Committee’s strike calls and the salary scale because it will lead to an economic catastrophe. The salary scale, if approved, will break the state’s back,” he said.
Bahous accused Mahfoud and Hanna Gharib, the head of the UCC, of carrying the country toward an “abyss” with their insistence on the salary scale.
In a sign reflecting frustration over the wage hike, most private schools in Beirut and its suburbs ignored the latest call by the UCC to observe Wednesday as “a day of intifada [uprising]” in response to the failure of Parliament’s Joint Committees to endorse the salary scale.
“I am absolutely against Wednesday’s strike because the salary scale will increase the tuition fees, which are already high. We can no longer tolerate any increase in the tuition fees,” said Mohieddine Hammoud, a bank employee as he dropped off his two children at a private school on Hamra Street.
“The issue of the public school teachers should be separated from that of the private school teachers because private schools raise the tuition fees almost every year,” Hammoud said.
Ali Samra, a father of two, echoed a similar view. “Why should private schools close whenever the public sector’s school unions decide to go on strike to press their demands for a pay hike?” he asked. “These strikes should be ended because they are wasting our children’s time by keeping them at home.”
“I strongly oppose the salary scale because it will give private schools a pretext to raise the tuition fees,” Samra said after dropping off his two children off at a private school in the Ras Beirut area.
Nadine Halabi, a mother of three, slammed the UCC’s repeated calls for strikes. “These teacher unions have no logic in their campaign to get a salary increase by using the students as hostages in their standoff with the government,” Halabi said after dropping off her children at a private school in the fashionable Verdun district.
“The teachers’ action does not reflect any respect for their educational ethics to which they are supposed to be committed in their noble career,” she said. “Under no circumstances should the students fall victim to the ongoing confrontation between the teacher unions and the government.”
Hadi Nouri, an employee at the Finance Ministry, scoffed at the UCC’s never-ending strike calls and rejected the proposed salary raise for civil servants and teachers in both government and private schools.
“I am against the UCC’s strike call. I will be greatly harmed if the salary scale is endorsed by Parliament because it will push tuition fees higher,” Nouri told The Daily Star after dropping off his two children at a private school in Ras Beirut.
“Why should the students be used as pawns in the ongoing game between the UCC and the government? This should not be allowed to continue,” he said.
Mustafa al-Dana lashed out at the salary scale proposal, saying it would prompt private schools to raise tuition fees once it was approved by Parliament.
“The salary increases for civil servants and teachers will benefit only a small section of the Lebanese people. But in reality, the majority of the Lebanese will eventually pay for the salary scale in new taxes and higher tuition fees,” said Dana, who works as a court legal expert, after dropping off his 3-year-old boy at a private school in the Hamra area.
Parliament’s joint committees, which have been meeting since last week to discuss the salary scale, remained split over revenues and proposed taxes to finance the wage hike.
Business leaders have warned of the negative consequences of the salary scale for Lebanon’s economy.
Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, who attended part of the parliamentary committees’ meetings, and other economists have voiced fears that the wage hike could trigger inflation and push prices of commodities higher. Salameh has recommended that the salary scale be paid in installments over a five-year period, something that was quickly rejected by the UCC, which insisted that the wage hike be paid in full.