BEIRUT: Lawmakers will resume discussing a controversial salary raise for the public sector Thursday after making strides to sort out the means to finance the hike in a bid to avert escalated union strikes.
Intensified efforts by Parliament’s Joint Committees to resolve the issue, which has been dragging on for over two years, came as strikes crippled the country Wednesday.
The Joint Committees approved most of the proposals to finance the hike, including one to raise the 5 percent tax on deposit interest revenues to 7 percent.
They also passed a proposal to impose taxes on seafront properties but have yet to discuss the percentage of the raise. Another proposal approved by the Joint Committees was to tax financial institution profits. Other proposals that have yet to be addressed include one calling for paying out the hike in installments, along with reforms.
Parliamentary sources told The Daily Star that disputed proposals including one to raise the VAT would be discussed by MPs once the draft law is referred to Parliament for final endorsement.
The sources said most blocs favored Parliament’s endorsement of the draft law to increase teachers salaries and public sector employees. They added that the fact that many proposals were approved indicated that there was agreement over the matter among major blocs, such as the Future Movement. Speaker Nabih Berri was present during the Joint Committees session although he did not chair it, indicating that he was carrying out meetings at the sidelines to facilitate an agreement.
The meeting of the Joint Committees, which lasted for over five hours, came shortly after striking teachers and public sector employees gathered at Riad al-Solh Square to pressure Parliament to pass the draft law. Many carried banners bearing their demands.
The protest was called for by the Union Coordination Committee, a coalition of public sector employees and teachers at private and public schools.
Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Private Teachers Association, said that the UCC would suspend its protests until Monday based on a promise made by Berri that Parliament would pass the draft law before then.
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 recommended the hike be paid in installments over a five-year period, fearing that it could trigger inflation and increase the prices of commodities. But the proposal is opposed by the UCC.
Berri, who was chairing a legislative session in Parliament as the protest went on, said that all blocs acknowledged the right of the teachers and public sector employees to the hike, but that the raise required sufficient revenues. He said that he sent a delegation to the UCC, urging it to stop demonstrations, as a mechanism for revenues was the last detail delaying the approval of the draft law.
Barbed wires blocked one of the roads leading to Parliament and the Army took unprecedented measures in the area, with soldiers seen on the rooftops of buildings.
Socioeconomic demands overshadowed much of the session. Commenting on a draft law to appoint all teachers who passed an exam in 2008 as teachers at secondary public schools, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora criticized it as an ill-thought out law that would only exacerbate economic woes in the long run.
He said that approving a salary raise for a certain group without studying the economic repercussions would encourage other groups to demand a similar raise.
“This does not have a financial cost only, but it sabotages the state and public order,” Siniora said.
In 2012, Parliament passed draft laws raising the salaries of Lebanese University professors and judges.
Siniora said that according to the law, civil servants who pass the exams of the Council of Civil Service were appointed in the public sector based on the need for them.
The law does not stipulate that everybody who passes the exam is immediately appointed, Siniora said. “We want to be fair with people, but not at the expense of 4 million Lebanese ... it is unacceptable that we carry on with this irresponsible attitude.”
Siniora said that such attitudes were aggravating Lebanon’s public debt. Berri called for the withdrawal of the draft law.
The speaker proposed that from now on, each draft law requiring public spending should specify the cost and source of funding. Berri also called on the state to stop hiring contract workers.
“If the state needs employees, then the Council of Civil Service can hold exams for candidates and hire people as full-timers based on the need,” Berri said.
After a lengthy discussion, Parliament passed a draft law to make Civil Defense contract workers and volunteers full-timers after they pass required tests.
There are around 770 Civil Defense contract workers and 2,400 volunteers serving in 220 Civil Defense centers across Lebanon.
Civil Defense volunteers have been protesting over the past week, blocking roads across Lebanon in a bid to pressure Parliament to pass the draft law.
Some volunteers chose a different way to protest Wednesday, by plunging into the sea near the Ramlet al-Baida neighborhood of Beirut and vowing not to come out of water before the draft law was passed.
When news that the draft law had been passed reached the volunteers, they danced and launched fireworks by the beach.
Among the six draft laws passed Wednesday one pertaining to crossing out an article in the penal code which did not criminalize the battering of children at the hands of parents and teachers.
Landlords and longtime tenants also held opposing demonstrations in Downtown Beirut and Baabda protesting the new rent law approved by Parliament last week.
In a related event, contract workers at the state-run National News Agency staged a strike Wednesday, demanding that a draft law to make them full-timers was passed by the legislature.
Information Minister Ramzi Joreige said at a news conference after meeting Berri that the speaker immediately referred the draft law to the Parliamentary Joint Committees.