BEIRUT: Teachers and public sector employees threatened Wednesday to escalate action after staging a one-day strike protesting the Cabinet’s delay in referring to Parliament a draft law to increase their salaries.
Demonstrators gathered near the Education Ministry and marched to the Grand Serail in Downtown Beirut, the headquarters of Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Sources from the Internal Security Forces estimated around 3,000 people participated in the march.
“We don’t want delay in the pay raise,” the protesters chanted, while others threatened further escalation.
“This is the first step,” they yelled.
Some carried banners calling on the Cabinet to finance the salary increase by taxing seafront properties and luxuries rather than needy people.
Shortly after the protest, Labor Minister Salim Jreissati said during a news conference that the Cabinet was almost done with the process of securing the needed funds.
He added that Cabinet had dealt with the raise carefully in order to ensure that these resources would not increase burdens or have a negative effect on the economy and on the exchange rate of the Lebanese pound.
The strike was called for by the Union Coordination Committee, a coalition of teachers at private and public schools, along with public sector employees.
“We were deceived,” said Ruwaida Abu Merhi, a teacher who came from the southern city of Sidon.
“They [Cabinet parties] told us your demands are just and promised that they would fulfill them. They did so only to ensure that official exams were held and evaluated,” she added, sitting in the shade in Riad al-Solh Square.
Teachers suspended their boycott of marking official exams in August after the Cabinet promised it would approve the draft law and refer it to Parliament by the end of that month.
Abu Merhi said that once teachers finished evaluating official exams and started the academic year, they discovered that they had been deceived.
The government approved the substantial raise for civil servants and teachers at public and private schools in September, but said that they would not refer the draft law to Parliament until they secured a source of funds for the raise.
“Let them stop theft, wasteful spending and impose taxes on banks and ports to finance it [the pay raise],” Harwaa Wehbe argued.
A math teacher for five years, Wehbe said that she and her husband, also a teacher, could not afford to raise children with their pay.“[A teacher’s] ambitions are limited ... he cannot travel or even give his children a proper education,” she added.
George Rizk agreed: “I have been teaching for 36 years ... and my basic monthly salary now is LL2,200,000 [$1,500]. I don’t think this is enough for a household,” Rizk said.
“This is shameful ... All we are demanding is barely an additional LL1 million [to the monthly salary] to feel that something has changed,” added Rizk, a math teacher who came from Jounieh.
Addressing the crowds, Hanna Gharib, the head of the Secondary Teachers Association, threatened escalatory moves if the draft law to increase salaries was not referred to Parliament as soon as possible.
“In Lebanon, there are at least around 2,000 educational institutions and dozens of ministries and public institutions ... I tell you get ready for a decision to escalate,” he said. “We students, teachers and public sector employees are able to paralyze the country through sit-ins, demonstrations and strikes.”
Gharib said that if the Cabinet would combat corruption, it could secure the $1.5 billion needed to increase salaries.
“Imposing taxes on seafront properties will yield $ 500 million, halt smuggling via the Beirut port and you will get $700 million,” Gharib said.
For his part, Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Association of the Private Schools Teachers, threatened to hold an open sit-in near the Grand Serail until demands are met.
Jreissati said that “we have finished more than 85 percent of the task to lay down draft laws to be referred to Parliament in order to finance the salary raise.”
“This is a responsible government that decided to refer the draft law to raise salaries to Parliament along with [other draft laws] to finance it,” he added.
Jreissati said that threats and warnings by unions will have no effect, adding that the sit-ins and demonstrations are taking place at the wrong time.
He said the Cabinet considers social welfare a red line, stressing that the Cabinet is serious about referring the draft law to Parliament.
Addressing ministers during a Cabinet session, Mikati praised the “convincing justifications” presented by Jreissati. He proposed that the draft law to increase salaries be referred to Parliament separately from the 2013 draft budget.
The Cabinet will hold a session next Wednesday to look into resources to finance the salary increase.
Speaking to The Daily Star following the Cabinet session, Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi voiced hope that the Cabinet would secure all the resources needed to finance the pay raise in next Wednesday’s session and the draft law be referred to Parliament.
Separately, the General Labor Confederation rejected indirect taxes on people to secure the needed resources.