BEIRUT: Contacts intensified Thursday to reach an agreement on the long-awaited public sector salary raise, as the education minister warned that the ongoing teachers’ strike was putting students at risk.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora held a meeting at his residence with Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khail, from Speaker Nabih Berri’s bloc, Health Minister Wael Abu Faour from the Progressive Socialist Party and Lebanese Forces MP George Adwan in a bid to hammer out a deal to pave the way for Parliament to endorse the pay hike.
Attendees decided to continue with the discussions. Khalil also plans to pay visits to representatives of various blocs to discuss the issue.
Parliament has failed so far to pass the draft law due to lingering differences between political parties over how to finance the salary raise.
The Future Movement has proposed raising the VAT from 10 to 11 percent, a demand opposed by Berri.
Berri’s visitors Thursday quoted him as saying that he was not sure Parliament would convene soon to endorse the wage hike.
“They [blocs] all say they will attend, but there are no guarantees that this will happen,” Berri said.
The speaker said that the result of Thursday’s meeting between Siniora, Abu Faour and Khalil would determine the fate of the salary raise.
“I am against the 1 percent rise in VAT. But I support reducing the salary raise by 10 percent and paying it in installments over three years,” Berri said. “I told relevant officials that we cannot accept increasing the VAT by 1 percent, paying the raise in installments and reducing the raise all at the same time.”
Berri said he was willing to accept a 1 percent rise in VAT in return for paying the wages in a single installment or to keep the VAT as is and pay the raise in installments with reductions in the total percentage demanded by the UCC.
“If we introduce a 1 percent raise on VAT, we will be stealing from people what we gave them. I support VAT increases on luxury items only,” he said.
Teachers are boycotting the marking of official exams in a bid to pressure Parliament to pass the salary raise. Students in Lebanon need to pass Grade 12 official exams to enroll at university and Grade 9 exams to join high school.
The strike is spearheaded by the Union Coordination Committee, a coalition of public sector employees and teachers who have been holding protests and strikes over the past two years.
Berri said the UCC had opposed all their proposed compromises.
Future Movement MP Jamal Jarrah said that talks between Khalil, the Future Movement and the PSP focused on three issues.
These talks tackled whether to decrease the salary raise by 10 or 15 percent, whether to increase the level of VAT, and whether to pay the hike in installments.
“The reason these issues were raised was to achieve balance between expenses and revenue,” Jarrah told a local TV station, adding that several meetings would be held within 24 hours in a bid to solve the issue.
Earlier, Berri discussed efforts to reach an agreement on the salary raise with Education Minister Elias Bou Saab.
Bou Saab urged politicians Thursday to pass the salary raise as soon as possible, warning that the future of students was at risk.
“The solution does not lie with the Union Coordination Committee, but with politicians. I call on them to take into consideration students who want to study abroad and who are in need of the Grade 12 certificate and visa,” Bou Saab told a news conference after meeting a UCC delegation at the Education Ministry.
“We are running out of time and we have entered a very dangerous phase, as some students might not be able to receive scholarships and might be denied entry to universities abroad,” Bou Saab said.
The minister said that he had asked the UCC delegation to consider solving the grading problem, as the salary raise might not be passed soon.
“I hope that we will sit together again in two days or at the start of next week to reach a certain agreement. Either we reach an agreement or the minister alone will make a decision,” Bou Saab said. “There is no perfect solution, but there are decisions that are better than others, let’s find one that could solve the problem facing 90 percent of students.”
Bou Saab told The Daily Star Wednesday that school averages could be used in place of official exam scores to decide which students would pass their classes in case the boycott continues.
UCC head Hanna Gharib reiterated after the talks his group’s demand of a 121 percent salary raise.
He also repeated his opposition to the proposal of paying the hike in installments or imposing new taxes to finance the raise.
“The Union Coordination Committee wants its rights in the salary scale and it is most eager to preserve the rights of students,” Gharib said.
He announced that the UCC would hold another strike on Aug. 6.