BEIRUT: Parliament failed to decide on wage hikes for civil servants and teachers Tuesday, opting instead to form a committee to re-examine the controversial public sector salary scale bill.
The Union Coordination Committee quickly dismissed the delay, calling for a nationwide strike to be held Wednesday.
Following two sessions that together lasted over five hours and were punctuated by heated debates, 65 lawmakers voted in favor of a proposal originally put forward by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to form a parliamentary committee to reconsider the salary scale draft law.
Lawmakers from MP Michel Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc voted in favor of the proposal, while 27 lawmakers from the blocs of Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Baath Party voted against.
The committee will include lawmakers from various blocs along with the ministers of finance, economy and education, in addition to Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh. It will re-examine the wage hike bill within two weeks before presenting its findings to Parliament.
Parliament also agreed with a majority vote on a proposal by Lebanese Forces MP George Adwan to postpone its discussions over the salary scale draft law for 15 days.
Reflecting his anger over the formation of the committee, Berri, who along with Hezbollah was in favor of endorsing the approval of the wage hike bill in Tuesday’s session, said: “I am against the formation of a committee to discuss the salary scale bill. God willing, this day will not be an unjust day in the history of Parliament.”
During the three-hour morning session, Siniora, the head of the parliamentary Future bloc, said the wage hike bill should be accompanied by comprehensive reform to increase productivity in the public sector.
“The Lebanese citizens who are not employees in the public sector are right to ask why they should pay additional taxes without being offered an increase in productivity, improvement in public sector services and real reform that would allow economic growth,” Siniora said in his review of the draft law submitted to Parliament.
MPs who voted in favor of referring the wage hike bill to a parliamentary committee criticized taxes proposed in the bill, claiming they could lead to the collapse of the Lebanese economy and a devaluation of the pound.
Future MP Ahmad Fatfat said the approval of the salary scale bill would heavily affect the ailing economy and the private sector, which has staunchly opposed the bill, estimated to cost the cash-strapped state treasury more than $1.6 billion annually.“All of the blocs without exception support that teachers and civil servants are granted their rights ... but it seems that the revenue figures need further assessment so that we can maintain the balance between expenditures and revenues,” Fatfat said after the decision to form the committee.
An hour before Parliament’s decision, the UCC called on civil servants and teachers to observe a nationwide strike Wednesday in protest at Parliament’s failure to approve the long-awaited bill. The UCC also dismissed the formation of the parliamentary committee as a means to bury the draft law.
“We all know that parliamentary committees are the graveyard to any draft law,” Hanna Gharib, the head of the UCC, told reporters. “In response to the recklessness and failure to pass the new salary scale ... the UCC calls on the entire public sector and private schools to observe a nationwide strike Wednesday.”
Gharib warned of escalatory measures by the UCC, including an open-ended strike and a boycott of official exams, if the bill was not approved. He also called on civil servants and teachers to stage sit-ins in all ministries and government houses across Lebanon, including one outside the Education Ministry building at 10 a.m.
He said the UCC would hold a news conference outside Parliament at 2 p.m. to announce its future steps.
Earlier in the day, Gharib handed a memo detailing the UCC’s demands about the salary scale to Parliament’s Secretary-General Adnan Daher.
Civil servants and teachers also rallied outside Parliament, urging lawmakers to approve the salary scale without dividing it, paying it in installments or otherwise reducing it, or failing to approve the same 121 percent pay hike granted to judges and Lebanese University teachers.
“The battle [has begun] against the money sharks and their leaders; the moment of truth has come,” Gharib told protesters gathered outside Parliament. “Today, lawmakers will decide whether they will stand by our demands or against them.”
Gharib said there would be “no compromise or negotiations” over civil servants and teachers’ demands.
“We want our full rights; there is no bargaining on our right for a 121 percent increase; there will be no compromise whatsoever,” he said.
Nehme Mahfoud, head of the Private Schools Teachers Association, called on private school teachers to observe Wednesday’s strike and warned against attempts to separate the public and private schools while discussing the pay raise bill. He called for an “intifada” in private schools to foil the draft law, which he said would affect 60,000 teachers.