BEIRUT: Thousands of striking teachers and public sector employees marched on Parliament Tuesday to pressure the government to approve a controversial salary increase as offices and schools across the country remained shuttered.
With a large banner that read: "Yes to amending salaries ... through bank and real estate profits, fighting smuggling, and taxes on seaside property," the protesters gathered at the Central Bank in Hamra Street, heading to Riad Solh Square, in yet another protest against the government’s failure to pass the wage hike.
Youssef and his wife, both public school teachers, traveled all the way from the southern village of Kfeir to Beirut where they joined the crowds in front of the Central Bank.
"Contrary to the argument put forth by economic bodies that that the pay hike will harm the economy, we believe that there will be major economic problems if wages are not increased," said Youssef, who declined to give his last name.
He warned that if wages are not raised, the working class will suffer.
Rola, a teacher at a private school, said teachers recognized that approving the wage hike would force schools to raise tuition fees “but we need to come to a compromise.”
“We are against a tuition increase. Our schools cannot afford to give us all of our rights but we want a compromise,” Rola told The Daily Star, also declining to give her last name.
She said salaries of many teachers have remained the same for 20 years.
“I can only afford to buy the necessities, which is a big problem,” Raymond Doueihy, a grade 12 teacher, said as he marched with his colleagues.
“Look at what I’m eating. A manoushe, a teacher eating a manoushe,” he added.
Private and public school teachers have warned that they would not correct final exams as a means of escalation and further pressure on MPs to pass the draft law.
The rally, organized by the Union Coordination Committee, is intended to block any attempt to pay the salary increases over a three or five-year period, as suggested by several lawmakers and economists who have repeatedly warned against the draft law.
Lawmakers have been unable to pass the proposal due to disagreements over how to finance the proposal, which is estimated to cost the treasury some $1.6 billion, with some proposing raising the Value Added Tax.
The UCC, a coalition of private and public school teachers and public sector employees, has called for massive participation in the march. The UCC also handed Central Bank governor Riad Salameh a letter detailing their demands.
Speaking to the large crowd gathered outside Parliament, Nehme Mahfoud, head of the Private Schools Teachers Association, criticized proposals to finance the salary scale.
“They want reform. True reform cannot be applied by taxing retirement benefits of teachers ... we will not allow you to take back the privileges of teachers which we fought to gain under the guise of reform,” Mahfoud said.
“[People] are making millions of dollars as a result of corruption in the Beirut port, the airport, and all of the ministries, particularly in the fields of telecommunications and electricity,” he added, noting that fighting corruption could easily finance the wage hike.
“Tell your MPs that this is how we teach our children to exercise democracy in the streets,” he said.
Hanna Gharib, head of the UCC, said the union would not agree to a salary increase at the expense of the poor in Lebanon, adding that politicians failed in their attempt to divide the unions and sabotage the movement.
“They thought they could divide the ranks of the Union Coordination Committee," Gharib said.
“The government should improve the quality of the public schools so we can enroll our children and yours in public schools,” he said, announcing that the Association of Secondary Education has been turned into a union.
He also spoke about the parliamentary committee tasked with studying, again, the wage hike proposal, saying that lawmakers would soon draft a review of the draft law.
“This review was born dead and once they propose it, then we will witness a great explosion,” he said.
Meanwhile, security forces blocked the main roads to Parliament in Downtown Beirut in anticipation of the march. Traffic near downtown was heavy but moving.
"Traffic is crazy today; it's unbelievable," Jihad, a taxi driver, said as he waited for the line of cars to move. "We also have our own problems, including the high price of gasoline."
The UCC has spearheaded several protests over the past two years in an attempt to press for the passage of the proposal, which was approved by the government and referred to the Parliament in 2013.
In a show of support for the UCC, the General Labor Confederation also intends to stage another demonstration Wednesday.
The Air Transport Association announced that it would stop work at Beirut airport between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesday in solidarity with the strike.