BEIRUT: Parliament holds a crucial session Tuesday as rival politicians and parliamentary blocs scramble to avoid a confrontation with civil servants and teachers over the public sector’s disputed wage hike bill.
The Parliament session comes amid threats by the Union Coordination Committee to escalate their street protests, including an open-ended strike, if the salary scale draft law is not approved by MPs Tuesday.
The UCC, which represents civil servants and teachers in public and private schools, has called for a general strike Tuesday ahead of the Parliament session in a move apparently aimed at exerting pressure on lawmakers to approve the salary scale draft law without slashing the wage hike demanded by the UCC or rolling out the hike in installments.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora chaired an extraordinary meeting of the parliamentary Future bloc Monday night to discuss what stance the bloc’s lawmakers would take during the Parliament session.
The bloc warned that the salary scale proposal would be a breach of the Constitution. “The salary scale draft law in its version amended by the [parliamentary] committees constitutes a clear violation of the Constitution,” the bloc said in a statement after its meeting.
It said that Article 84 in the Constitution allows Parliament and committees to demand a reduction in spending rather than increasing it.
“The bloc calls for studying the draft law carefully so that it would achieve its goal without burdening the treasury and without causing negative effects on the economy,” the statement said. It called for the salary scale bill to be coupled with the approval of a series of binding economic and administrative reforms.
MP Ali Khreis from Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc said he expected heated debates during the Parliament session before the wage hike bill is endorsed, given the divisions among lawmakers over the salary increase.
“We support the approval of the salary scale bill, but it should be laced with the implementation of basic and fundamental reforms in the public administration,” Khreis told The Daily Star.
Although the salary scale proposal was approved last week by Parliament’s Joint Committees following a series of marathon sessions, MPs failed to reach agreement on when the hikes would go into effect, whether they would be retroactive and if they would be paid in installments. They also remained split over the increase in value-added tax and on details of the raises for teachers.
President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Tammam Salam urged lawmakers to adopt a series of administrative reforms before passing the public sector wage hike in a bid to limit possible adverse effects on the country’s ailing economy.
“Stemming from our keenness to preserve the interests of citizens, discussions in Parliament should carefully focus on creating a balance between revenues and expenditures so that [the wage hike] will not negatively affect the economy and burden citizens with additional taxes,” Sleiman and Salam said in a joint statement after their meeting at Baabda Palace.
They stressed that the salary hike should be accompanied by “administrative reforms to stop corruption and control spending, which would safeguard the treasury and pave the way for a serious and practical discussion on how to apply the salary scale.”Berri has called a Parliament session for Tuesday to debate and vote on the public sector’s salary scale, which is estimated to cost the cash-strapped state treasury more than $1.6 billion annually.
A staunch supporter of the salary scale bill, Berri met with members of his parliamentary bloc to discuss the issue on the eve of the Parliament session. He later dispatched Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a member of his bloc, to Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt who has said his parliamentary bloc would vote against the salary scale draft law if the funding sources were not clear enough.
Khalil briefed the Chouf MP on the means to find revenues to fund the salary increases.
Jumblatt, who chaired a meeting of his parliamentary bloc, the National Struggle Front, warned of dire economic consequences if the salary scale bill was approved haphazardly.
“The Front sees that what hurts the popular sections most is an attempt to mislead them that a theoretical approval of the salary scale [bill] will be in their interest. At best, this approval will lead to an inflation that would erode all gains and rights,” the front said in a statement after the meeting.
“At worst, it would lead to a financial and economic collapse at an extremely complicated and critical time internally and regionally, whereby it would be difficult to expect any support for Lebanon if the worst happened,” it added.
MP Michel Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc said the wage hike bill should be accompanied by the implementation of reforms in the public administration.
“The people’s rights in the public sector are rightful. But [the state’s] resources and reforms should be taken seriously into account in order for the state, rights, workers and employers to survive in Lebanon,” MP Ibrahim Kanaan told reporters after the bloc’s weekly meeting chaired by Aoun in Rabieh, north of Beirut.
He said the bloc’s lawmakers would make proposals and amendments to the wage hike bill during the Parliament session. “We are keen on rights, resources and reforms,” he added.
The heads of Catholic schools sent a memorandum to Berri in which they warned that the approval of the salary scale bill in its first version would lead to the closure of a number of private schools and leave their teachers jobless. Among other things, the memo demands that the wage hike bill be accompanied by reforms and the cancellation of the bill’s retroactive effect.
Meanwhile, the UCC called on employees in all ministries, public departments, municipalities and teachers in government and private schools to observe a general strike Tuesday along with a central sit-in at 11 a.m. on Riad al-Solh Square while Parliament is in session.
Hanna Gharib, head of the UCC, said the strike was designed to protect the salary scale against attempts to divide and install it, reduce its figures, or failing to approve the same 121 percent pay hike granted to judges and Lebanese University teachers.