BEIRUT: The Future bloc Monday outright rejected the draft law to increase the salaries of civil servants and teachers, saying the wage hike would drive Lebanon into bankruptcy.
Nevertheless, Education Minister Elias Bou Saab was optimistic that lawmakers could reach a deal on the disputed wage hike bill during Tuesday’s legislative session, insisting official school exams would be held this week despite a boycott by the teachers.
“The Future bloc will not agree to anything that would push Lebanon into bankruptcy and turn it into a failed state,” Future bloc head MP Fouad Siniora said in a televised address.
Siniora said the draft law in its current version would certainly increase the deficit, harm the purchasing power and raise the inflation rate to a level “Lebanese cannot tolerate.”
The bill, which has been under study by a parliamentary subcommittee, lacks needed reforms that would put an end to squandering and corruption, Siniora said, noting that the proposed means to finance the draft law were not sufficient.
Siniora said the 2014 draft budget prepared by Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil projected deficit in spending at 34.9 percent compared to 30.94 percent in 2013.
“These numbers do not even include the salary scale or some of the expenditures approved by Parliament and Cabinet this year,” he said.
“Amending the salaries of civil servants and teachers is a rightful demand, but it should be done in a serious and calculated manner instead of a hasty [draft law].”
Meanwhile, Bou Saab said the official exams would be held regardless of whether the wage hike bill would be approved or postponed.
“The atmosphere will be to approve the salary scale, and we will see more of an agreement among lawmakers,” Bou Saab told reporters after meeting Speaker Nabih Berri.
“I have hope that it will be approved tomorrow,” he said, referring to Tuesday’s session called for by the speaker to discuss and possibly pass the controversial wage hike bill.
“If it was not passed, we will continue discussions to give the teachers their rights but that does not mean that exams would be put on hold.”
Despite a boycott of official exams by teachers protesting against Parliament's failure to approve the bill, Bou Saab has revealed a backup plan in which he will use contract teachers to replace the full-timers.
The Committee of Contract Teachers confirmed that they would take part in correcting and monitoring the exams for the sake of students' interests, saying such a decision was “not directed against the Union Coordination Committee, which we support in its demands.”
The committee announced last week that it had accepted the minister’s proposal to replace the public teachers in the official exams and said that Bou Saab had promised to refer their demands of full-time employment to the concerned parties and pay them transportation fees for exam days.
Bou Saab vowed not to bow down despite the unions’ threats.
“Official exams are going to be held next Thursday,” Bou Saab told a news conference Monday morning.
Addressing Grade 9 and Grade 12 students, he said: "Be prepared to sit for the exams Thursday."
Bou Saab stressed that he still supported the UCC's demands regardless of his decision to hold the exams, which he said affected the lives of thousands of students and their parents.
The UCC, which has spearheaded the movement in support of the wage hike for teachers and civil servants for three years, observed a nationwide strike, with the union’s head, Hanna Gharib, calling on contract teachers to defy Bou Saab and refuse to monitor official school exams.
“We call on everybody to take part in a [meeting] this afternoon to vote to boycott the official exams until our rights are met,” Gharib told a rally outside the Education Ministry in Beirut. “We tell contract [teachers] and the Parents Committees: be united with the UCC."
The strike paralyzed ministries, public departments and institutions as well as municipalities across Lebanon and the Grand Serail in Beirut. The UCC is expected to observe another strike Tuesday to coincide with the legislative session.
Later in the day, Head of the Teachers Union Nehme Mahfoud repeatedly urged contract teachers to go back on their decision, saying the exams “will not be held without the approval of the Union Coordination Committee.”
He also said that exam preparation was a difficult and complicated task that the teachers were used to doing, daring “anyone to hold the tests without the teachers.”
With mounting pressure on the contractors not to go against the UCC’s will, the Directorate of Education Inspection at the ministry said the teachers would risk prosecution if they fail to do their “national duty.”
“I call on the administrative and educational bodies in schools to carry out their national duty with regards to the exams under penalty of legal prosecution for those who fail to do so,” Faten Jomaa, the inspection director, said.
During the protest outside the Education Ministry, Gharib slammed the minister for changing his position: “You were the first to support the teachers’ demands. At the beginning you said you were with us, and later you said: ‘We will show you.’”
Gharib, nevertheless, pleaded with Bou Saab to “take the right path.”
Lawmakers are divided over measures to fund the new salary scale, which is estimated to cost the treasury around $1.6 billion.
Head of the Future bloc MP Fouad Siniora acknowledged a problem in the pay hike, the union's key demand.
"Paying the salary increase in installments is a problem. We should balance funding with spending," Siniora said following a meeting with Berri.
The Future along with several parliamentary blocs have warned against passing the draft law without securing proper funding that would not harm the ailing treasury.
A parliamentary source told The Daily Star that March 14 would hold a meeting later Monday to decide whether the coalition’s lawmakers would attend the pay hike session.
The source said March 14’s decision seemed to be linked to Monday’s session in terms of whether Berri would be able to secure quorum, a move that would embarrass the coalition.
But Kataeb Party MP Sami Gemayel said he would not participate.
“Tomorrow’s session is unconstitutional and Kataeb will not take part in it,” he told reporters as he headed to Parliament for Monday's session.