BEIRUT: Public sector employees held a nationwide strike Wednesday and promised further protests over Parliament’s delay in endorsing a long-awaited salary raise, as Education Minister Elias Bou Saab warned that continuing unrest risked severely disrupting the school year.
The Union Coordination Committee, which is spearheading the protests, threatened to go on strike again on April 29 if its demands for a pay hike were not met.
Public schools across the country closed as teachers and civil servants protested over the issue.
In a news conference at Riad al-Solh Square in Downtown Beirut, the UCC slammed the banking sector’s opposition to a proposal that would see a tax on deposit interest revenue increase from 5 to 7 percent in order to finance the wage hike.
“Only last year, banks made a profit of around $2.3 billion,” said Hanna Gharib, head of the UCC.
He said that only $2 billion was declared while the remaining $300 million was allocated for personal use by bank owners and managers.
“The proposal made by the Finance Ministry to raise taxes on banks ... reduces the profits of banks by $250 million only,” Gharib said. “Where is the disaster?”
Parliament Tuesday formed yet another committee to study the draft law within a two-week deadline. The move angered the UCC, which has been waiting two years for a final decision on the proposal to be reached.
After being mulled by Cabinet, the draft law was passed to a parliamentary subcommittee and Parliament’s Joint Committees, who have been examining it for over a year.
Teachers and public sector employees are demanding a 121 percent salary raise that would be effective retroactively, and have rejected suggestions that the extra money could be paid in installments.
Many MPs argue that the wage hike, which is expected to cost around $2 billion, would have a grave impact on the ailing economy amid a drop in revenues.
Some voiced fears that the step would result in a strong depreciation in the pound, as happened in 1992 following the Civil War.
In a further escalation of tensions, Amal Movement MP Hani Qobeisi announced that he had decided to go ahead with a lawsuit against Francois Bassil, the head of the Association of Banks in Lebanon, for reportedly insulting MPs over the tax hike proposal.
Bassil denies the allegations.
“I am not afraid of the lawsuit, I am under the law and judiciary,” he said.
Later, a UCC delegation visited Education Minister Elias Bou Saab at the ministry.
“Official exams are in danger and the ability to finish the academic year is in danger if demands are not met,” Bou Saab said at a joint news conference.
Voicing his support for the demands of teachers, he added: “It is unacceptable to depict teachers as the enemies of the Lebanese economy and push them to take steps they don’t like.”
The minister said that while he agreed the salary raise required an in-depth examination, this should have happened before.
“I hope that studying the figures will be finalized within two weeks before April 29. I hope that schools will not be closed before that date.”
Gharib, who spoke at both news conferences, threatened to call further strikes and protests on April 29 if UCC’s demands were not met, even suggesting teachers might boycott marking official exams.
Many civil servants are justifying their demand for a salary raise by pointing to a pay hike judges received last year, prompting the Higher Judicial Council to release a statement Wednesday emphasizing that the sector had its own salary scale that should not be compared to the rest of the public sector.
Speaking at Baabda Palace, President Michel Sleiman said that while he supported the right of teachers and public sector employees to have a wage hike, he believed this should be fulfilled based on the available revenues.
The draft law to raise salaries was initially approved by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Najib Mikati and referred to Parliament in March 2013.
Speaking at the beginning of a Cabinet session in the palace, Sleiman said amendments introduced to the law by a parliamentary subcommittee that raised its cost could have a negative impact on economic stability.
Commenting on requests by some Lebanese that he return other recently passed laws to Parliament, Sleiman said he would make a decision in line with country’s best interests, national laws and the Constitution.
Longtime tenants have been holding protests urging him not to sign a rent law endorsed in the past two weeks, arguing that it is unfair.
Landlords have held several opposing demonstrations, urging Sleiman to sign. The president’s signature is necessary for the law to go into effect.
Sleiman said relevant departments in the presidential palace were studying the draft law.