BEIRUT: Civil servants and teachers launched their biggest drive to see their wage demands referred to Parliament Thursday as ministers were to set to discuss the controversial public sector draft pay scale.
In line with the open-ended strike by teachers and public sector employees, inbound and outbound flights at Rafik Hariri International Airport were suspended at 10 a.m.
Weary of flight delays, many travelers arrived early at the Beirut airport. The airport was also flooded with phone calls from travelers wanting to know changes to the arrival and departure times.
Seventeen flights belonging to Arab and foreign airlines including the state-owned Middle East Airlines were affected by the strike.
Along with all key government departments, public schools will be shut in line with the strike while private school teachers are expected to participate in the rally.
Protesters, who were shuttled from all corners of the country, gathered near the Presidential Palace, 15 kilometers east of Beirut, at 11 a.m. and vented their anger at the government for failing to refer the wage hike to Parliament for approval.
“The new salary scale will remain much less than what you waste of [the government’s money],” one banner read. “Refer it to solve it,” another one said.
Speaking to the protesters in Baabda, Nehmeh Mahfouz, head of the Teachers Association, warned the government against raising taxes on the poor to finance the new salary scale.
“We oppose having the salary scale approved at the expense of the poor and we warn them against imposing taxes on them,” Mahfouz, a prominent figure in the protest movement, said.
Head of the Union Coordination Committee Hanna Gharib, who has spearheaded the month-long protests, led the march toward the Presidential Palace, where ministers will meet at 3.30 p.m. to make a final decision on the divisive bill.
Gharib thanked public sector employees and parents for standing firm in their demands, as protesters chanted: "We are all with you, Hanna!"
"We say to all the ministers and officials, starting with President Michel Sleiman, who we highly appreciate, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati ... these are the people of Lebanon - be responsible toward them and meet their demands," Gharib said.
"We will never kneel down for anyone ... our dignity will come first," he added, expressing hope that ministers would unanimously vote in favor of referring the draft law to lawmakers for a decision.
Gharib, however, slammed the amendments made to the wage hike, saying the wage hike in its present form had been decreased by 5 percent and would be paid in installments until 2016.
"This is why we decided, the Union Coordination Committee, to resume the strike ... No, we will never accept that our rights be tarnished," Gharib said.
Also Thursday, the head of the Traffic Controller Committee warned that airport staff would take escalatory measures if the government failed to include them in the new wage hike.
"If the salary scale is approved today in Cabinet and we were not included then the traffic controllers will keep up their strike until they approve a new wage hike for us," Kamal Nassereddine told The Daily Star.
"Everyone knows that traffic controllers are the backbone of this vital sector. We have a set of demands that we hope to be met," he added.
If passed, the long-awaited salary increase would be tied to an increase in the working hours of civil servants and a tax hike on luxury goods, refunds to tourists, stamp fees and alcoholic beverages as well as taxing illegal construction and seaside property.
It would also be paid in installments to ease the burden on the treasury.
The Cabinet has stalled the referral of the salary scale draft after it approved it 11 months ago, arguing the funding for the pay scale needed to be secured.
The wage raise is expected to cost the treasury some $1.2 billion annually.