BEIRUT: Thousands more 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 calling for their statuses as government employees to be improved.
Dozens of protesters gathered near Parliament in Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square where they raised banners urging the government to meet their demands.
Holding one end of a large white banner, Mohammad Saloum, an employee at the government’s Harawi Hospital in Zahle, said workers there had not received their salaries for 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.”
“Yesterday, they came to cut the electricity and the fixed line at my house,” he added. “We are a governmental hospital. We are employees of the government, to this b---h of a government. Only the military are getting paid. They [the MPs] are taking all the money to defend them.”
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 some of the nation’s lawmakers gathered for a session to elect a president.
“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.”
Some workers from the Social Affairs Ministry joined the protest and called for their status to be changed from part-time to full-time.
The National Social Security Fund, Electricite du Liban, Beirut’s Port, and the state-owned telephone company Ogero all closed their offices Wednesday.
The strike also affected the Regie Libanaise des Tabacs et Tombacs, the company responsible for manufacturing, importing and exporting tobacco products, and the water authority. The Air Transport Association stopped working from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Wednesday’s action came a day after a coalition of teachers and public sector employees under the umbrella of the UCC held a massive protest Tuesday to pressure lawmakers to endorse the salary scale draft law, with most private schools taking part in the strike.
Ghosn said all offices were committed to the strike, but UCC head Hanna Gharib lashed out at him, saying he was making behind-the scenes deals with politicians at the expense of workers’ rights.
“Ghassan Ghosn, the head of the General Labor Confederation, abandoned us three years ago. We ask for the pay hike, while he signs agreements from behind our backs,” Gharib was quoted by media outlets as saying Wednesday. The UCC did not take part in Wednesday’s 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 seafront properties.
Iman, a contract teacher from Abbasiyeh Public School, said she had 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.”
She said her pay per hour was less than $10.
“Imagine a lawmaker, who has died 100 years ago, his great-grandchildren 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.”
Ghosn said the GLC also had other demands, including improving conditions for retired workers through a comprehensive plan to be implemented by the NSSF.
“However, the priority remains for now giving the public sector employees their rights,” he said.