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Students caught in middle of teachers’ pay impasse

Hanna Gharib speaks to contract teachers at the Education Ministry in Beirut, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: As unions and politicians continue to exchange barbs over the wage scale, teachers Tuesday prepared for a long night inside the Education Ministry to protest Parliament’s failure to pass the polarizing bill.

The rift has left students in the middle, wondering whether or not they will be able to sit the nationwide exams due to start Thursday, tests for which they have been preparing for months in advance and that will help determine their future.

“The exams will be held Thursday,” Education Minister Elias Bou Saab told a news conference from Parliament Tuesday.

“Students are suffering the most. I am not willing to postpone the exams, not even 15 minutes.”

But speaking inside the ministry later that day, Union Coordination Committee leader Hanna Gharib slammed Bou Saab’s belief.

“We are the ones who announce exam dates,” Gharib told a cheering crowd. “[Exam] certificates in exchange for the salary scale.”

Around 300 teachers gathered Tuesday morning to demonstrate outside the ministry in UNESCO before entering around 9 a.m. and setting up camp for the day.

“We are staying here tonight!” yelled one teacher in a red polo shirt defiantly as the evening wore on.

Around 9:30 p.m., Bou Saab called in some of the students there to meet with him privately. Once they re-emerged, they said that the minister assured them the exams would be held Thursday.

One student who was in the meeting accused Bou Saab of bringing the students to play them off against the others at the protest. He said the minister told them it was the teachers who were holding them hostage.

Although the atmosphere in the evening was tenser, with the UCC waiting for the minister to make a final announcement as The Daily Star went to press, the day was more tranquil, with security forces relaxing in the shade under trees and teachers mulling around outside the ministry and chatting.

It was so calm, in fact, that one of the officers even joked, “I’m going to shoot in the air in a bit [to calm everyone down].”

The demonstration also attracted students backing their teachers’ fight for a wage scale that has not been amended in 18 years.

“I want to support the teachers because [having their wages raised] is their right,” said Ahmad Ibrahim, 18, standing outside the Education Ministry building.

“When our country calls us we have a duty to serve every citizen and the country,” he said, adding that the protesters were prepared to sleep at the ministry if necessary.

Ibrahim has finished his school year but said his brother is preparing to sit for exams Thursday.

“He’s worried about whether or not the exams are happening,” he said. “All students are worried.”

Clutching a sleeping bag, Hani Adada, a 26-year-old member of the Union of Lebanese Democratic Youth, is also prepared to spend the night to support the UCC.

“We must support the UCC not only in terms of the wage hike but also the right to organize and the social, political and economic importance of their existence,” he said. “I support not only words [for this cause] but physically and all levels.”

Following Parliament’s repeated failure to reach an agreement over the wage scale, the teachers Monday declared an open-ended sit-in until they decided upon their next phase of action.

“This is an open protest,” Hasan Ismail, president of the Federal International Education Syndicate, told The Daily Star. “The decision-makers will study our options in light of what the government or parliament decides.”

After 18 years without a wage scale increase, teachers are demanding a wage hike of 121 percent. Politicians say that meeting the teacher’s demands will hamper the Lebanese economy. Leaders of the UCC, a collection of public sector workers and public and private school teachers, counter by accusing the political class of misusing Lebanon’s financial resources.

The UCC has held massive protests where thousands of people took to the streets, but so far nothing has been able to coerce Parliament into passing the bill.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 11, 2014, on page 3.

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