BEIRUT: Workers went on strike Wednesday in solidarity with the Union Coordination Committee's demand for a wage hike, warning the state against increasing taxes and also calling for improving their statuses as government workers.
“We are striking because the state makes promises it does not commit to; the state has no prestige,” the head of the General Labor Confederation Ghassan Ghosn told The Daily Star.
“Instead of finding solutions to the waste in the Treasury, the state wants to impose more taxes on citizens who already have enough financial burdens,” he said.
Dozens of protesters gathered outside Parliament in Beirut’s Riad al-Solh square where they raised banners urging the government to meet their demands.
Protesters of all ages chanted and held signs on the street facing the Grand Serail, hoping their message would carry over the barbed-wire blockades and reach the ears of the nation's lawmakers.
Fouad Chehab, a worker with Electricite du Liban, said he attended the sit-in “in solidarity all the government employees of Lebanon.”
Some workers from the Social Affairs Ministry also joined the protest and called for changing their status to full-time employees.
The National Social Security Fund, the Electricite Du Liban, Beirut’s port, and the state-owned telephone company Ogero all closed their offices.
The strike also affected the Regie Libanaise des Tabacs et Tombacs, the company responsible for manufacturing, importing and exporting tobacco products, as well as the water authority.
The Air Transport Association stopped working from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Ghosn said all offices were committed to the strike.
Lawmakers have been unable to pass the pay hike draft bill 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.
Mohammad Saloum , an employee at Hopital Harawi in Zahle, said employees at the governmental hospital have not been paid their salaries for three months.
“For three months we haven’t seen a cent ... We have a big problem," he said. "We vote for Parliament, but they steal our money."
“Only the military are getting paid. They’re taking all the money," he added.
Iman, a contract teacher from the Abbasiyeh Public School, said she joined the protest to make her voice heard.
“We’re demanding to be paid each month. Now we’re paid once every six months. For six months we don't even see a cent! And we can't get an advance,” she said. “If the director is feeling sympathetic, he can pay us an advance from his own pocket, but that's all.”
Iman regretted that hourly-paid teachers do not have social security. She said her pay per hour is less than 10 dollars.
“Imagine a lawmaker, who has died 100 years ago, his great grand children still get a monthly sum," she said. "We’re teaching the next generation, and we’re giving all our hearts, but we earn just a pittance every six months.”
Rola Shreiteh, a teacher at Mohammad Shaarmel school in the Tariq al-Jadideh Beirut neighborhood, said contract teachers are demanding a L.L.4000 raise to their hourly pay, adding that her salary is barely enough.
“Since 2005, we’ve made L.L14,000 per hour, but now we’re demanding L.L.18,000. We don’t have insurance. They don’t pay our transportation,” she said.
“It’s barely enough for me to pay for breakfast each morning!” she said of her pay.
Ghosn said that the GLC has other demands, including improving conditions for retired workers through a comprehensive plan by the NSSF.
“However, the priority remains for now giving the public sector employees their rights,” he said.
Rolls of barbed wire blocked off the Square from protesters, but rows and rows of empty tables at nearby cafes suggested that potential customers, too, were not welcome.
An employee at a nearby pharmacy complained that the protest had scared away pedestrians in the area.
"Of course it's not good for business," he grumbled.
The civil servants held a massive protest Tuesday to pressure lawmakers to endorse the salary scale draft law, with most private schools committing to the strike.