Lebanon News

More strikes as unions stick to their guns

Hundreds of civil servants and public school teachers march toward Parliament in protest of the government's failure to pass a wage hike bill on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Lebanon braced for a second day of strikes after thousands of mostly public sector employees marched demanding that Parliament pass a controversial wage hike Tuesday, while politicians continued to weigh the impact of the proposed bill on the economy. The Union Coordination Committee, a coalition of private and public school teachers and public sector employees, led Tuesday’s march from the Central Bank to Riad al-Solh Square in Downtown. The UCC has spearheaded several protests over the past two years in an attempt to press for the passage of a 121 percent wage increase, which was approved by the government and referred to the Parliament in 2013.

“The package of measures proposed by the ministry came after studying its anticipated impact on the national economy and stability of the currency,” said Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil told reporters during a news conference.

“The governor of the Central Bank has assured [the Parliamentary Finance and Budget Committee] that there is no reason to worry about the stability of the currency and that the banks should contribute just like everybody to finance the salary scale.”

The strike was organized to protest attempts to pay the increase over a three- or five-year period, something suggested by several lawmakers and economists who have repeatedly warned against the draft law.

Thousands were on the streets chanting and carrying posters, one of which read: “Yes to amending salaries ... through bank and real estate profits, fighting smuggling, and taxes on seaside property.”

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 were not raised, the working class would suffer.

Another strike will take place Wednesday, this time organized by the General Labor Confederation in a show of support for the UCC. The Air Transport Association announced that it would stop work from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in solidarity with the strike. Public and private schools will be open as normal.Despite forming multiple committees last year to examine the proposal, lawmakers have been unable to pass the pay hike due to severe disagreements over how it should be financed, with some suggesting that Value Added Tax be raised and others calling for taxes on coastal properties. The proposal is estimated to cost the treasury some $1.6 billion.

Speaking to the crowd in Riad al-Solh Square, UCC head Hanna Gharib said the union would not agree to a salary increase at the expense of the poor in Lebanon.

“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 had been turned into a union. All public schools and some private schools were closed Tuesday as teachers took part in the demonstration.

He also spoke about the parliamentary committee tasked with studying, once more, 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.

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 the salaries of many teachers had remained the same for 20 years.

“I can only afford to buy the necessities, which is a big problem,” said Raymond Doueihy, a grade 12 teacher, as he marched with his colleagues.

Politicians meanwhile said that they were trying to solve the wage crisis while also taking the state’s financial capacity into consideration.

MP Ibrahim Kanaan, the head of Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee, said people’s rights and the state’s resources should be taken into consideration when addressing the salary scale issue.

“This issue should be dealt with through institutions based on rights and capabilities. Capabilities and [the need for] reforms should be taken into consideration,” Kanaan said.

Speaking to reporters, Kanaan added that his stance should not be interpreted as opposition to the approval of the salary scale.

“We look forward to reaching a happy ending for this issue,” he added.

Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan said he recognized that public sector employees’ salaries were not enough for them to live and called for “a sincere economic dialogue.”

“We need to recognize those employees’ clear rights and the state must recognize their rights,” Hajj Hasan said, adding that the Lebanese state’s lack of “a clear economic vision” had led it to the current state.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 30, 2014, on page 1.




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