BEIRUT: The head of the UCC rejected any compromise over the draft salary scale bill being debated in Parliament, as Hezbollah lawmakers expressed solidarity with thousands of teachers and civil servants gathered in Beirut in a "day of rage."
"We will not back away from our rights, and we want the salary scale fully implemented. We are protesting today because we want to thwart the draft law being debated in Parliament," Union Coordination Committee head Hanna Gharib told protesters gathered at Riad al-Solh. "We demand that lawmakers listen to our voices."
Inside Parliament, a Hezbollah lawmaker insisted that his bloc would stand united with the civil servants.
"The draft law on the salary scale that the subcommittee put forth is unfair and does not address the weaknesses in the original bill," MP Ali Fayyad from the Loyalty to the Resistance bloc told a news conference in Parliament.
Fayyad said Hezbollah also rejected a tax increase and proposed that TVA be increased from 10 to 15 percent on luxury products.
MP Ali Ammar from the same bloc joined the union rally outside Parliament, saying "Hezbollah was biased to the rights of the workers" and vowing that his bloc would review the draft law item by item.
Wednesday morning, dozens of buses carried the protesters from the north, south and east of the country to the Banks' Association in Beirut. From there, the demonstrators marched to Riad al-Solh Square near Parliament in Downtown to coincide with a legislative session where MPs were debating a compromise on the controversial pay hike issue.
During the legislative session, Parliament approved an item of the draft law that would have travelers on private jets pay LL400,000 as an "exit fee," MP Sami Gemayel tweeted.
Speaker Nabih Berri, who adjourned the morning session to 6 p.m., proposed the creation of a parliamentary committee to prepare a study on the illegal seaside properties and address disputed items related to the violations.
The committee would then hand over its review to Parliament's General Secretariat so that MPs could discuss it.
Prior to the start of the 11 a.m. session, Berri met Prime Minister Tammam Salam, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Lebanese Forces MP George Adwan.
Berri warned at the start of the meeting that he would not pass the pay hike law under pressure.
Gharib, who called for the “day of rage," has threatened to set off a popular uprising if MPs failed to meet the demands of the public sector.
Berri also demanded an apology from Gharib for offensive remarks he has been making against lawmakers and dispatched Education Minister Elias Bou Saab with a warning that he would sue him if he failed to apologize.
Gharib quickly responded to Berri, saying his remarks were aimed at "money whales" and not MPs.
"The word 'thieves' was not meant for MPs but for money whales," he said during his rally speech in Downtown. "I haven't harmed the dignity of any MP and in case I did, I apologize."
Berri later acknowledged the apology, telling MPs that he had just received a letter of apology from Gharib.
The protesters, some of whom were waving the Lebanese flag while others banged drums, started heading to Riad al-Solh at the same time as the session got underway at 11 a.m., half an hour late.
“I don’t care about the economy. What’s important to us is that they [MPs] give us our rights,” said protester Abdel-Nasser Kabbara, a 65-year-old teacher at one of Tripoli’s top secondary private schools.
Another teacher at a public school in the southern border village of Bint Jbeil echoed this sentiment.
“I’m here because I want to put pressure on MPs to approve a fair pay raise,” said Samer Fawwaz, 39.
MPs told The Daily Star that they expected Wednesday's session to be a long one, stressing that all parliamentary blocs realized that they could not leave the meeting without a solution.
Sources said the lawmakers might raise the ceiling of the salary scale funding from the $1.2 billion suggested by the parliamentary committee to $1.4 billion, but even this figure falls far below the original $1.9 billion proposed.
Gharib vowed the UCC would continue its strike until workers got their rights, renewing a warning that teachers would boycott official exams for Grade 9 and Grade 12 students unless the bill was amended to address their concerns.
The head of the Association of State Employees, Mahmoud Haidar, warned lawmakers that “today is the day of test” for them and urged them to give equal pay for equal work.
“Give employees a fair raise,” he said.
Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh has urged MPs to pay the salary increases over five years, expressing fears that a drastic hike would lead to inflation and above all to mounting pressure on national finances.
MP Alaeddine Tirro reiterated a call from Walid Jumblatt’s National Struggle Front bloc to find “clear” funding sources to finance the salary scale.
"From the beginning, we have said that we reject the salary scale unless full funding is secured, so that it wouldn’t affect the economic and financial situation of the country or Lebanese citizens,” Tirro told a news conference at Parliament.
Lawmakers, he said, “must secure real funding sources that would not strain the poor or plunge the country into economic chaos.”
Jumblatt said last month that his parliamentary bloc would vote against the salary scale draft law if the funding sources were not clear enough.