BEIRUT: Public and private schoolteachers as well as civil servants observed a one-day strike across the country Thursday to protest a government delay in implementing salary increases, but Prime Minister Najib Mikati stood firm on his stance, vowing not to bow under street pressure.
Meanwhile, the Union Coordination Committee, a coalition of private and public schools and public sector employees, which rallied for Thursday’s protest, called for a two-day nationwide strike on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 to press for government action on the salary increases.
Responding to teacher unions’ threats to escalate their protests unless the government sent the salary scale draft law to Parliament, Mikati warned that repeated strikes would take their toll on Lebanon’s struggling economy, stressing that it would be impossible to pay wage increases in one go.
He also reiterated the government’s position that the salary scale draft would not be referred to Parliament before revenues were generated through the imposition of taxes to fund the wage increases for civil servants and public school teachers. The cost of the new salary scale approved by the Cabinet last month is estimated at $1.5 billion.
“If strikes continue this will lead to a total collapse in the absence of monetary stability,” Mikati told a news conference at the Grand Serail.
“Our priority is to maintain monetary stability. It is true there was a strike, but it happened amid monetary stability,” the prime minister said.
Mikati said his government was carrying “a fireball” in order to maintain the country’s economic stability.
“We cannot pay the salary increases at once. We also cannot approve the salary scale [draft] and send it to Parliament without revenues. They [teacher unions] are demanding that the draft be sent [to Parliament] without ensuring revenues and new taxes,” Mikati said.
Reiterating his commitment to the salary scale, he said the government was pursuing the issue calmly, adding that the proposed taxes would not affect middle and lower classes.
“But at the same time, we are not ready in any form to expose the monetary and social situation to any danger,” Mikati said.
“We are searching for revenues and contacting various economic sides, the Bank of Lebanon and the Finance Ministry in order to fully maintain this stability,” he added.
Mikati renewed the government’s plan to pay the salary increases in installment over four years, a decision that the UCC has rejected outright.
“The salary scale has been approved, and no one will lose anything. There is no need for strikes. The academic year is important for everyone,” he said.
But “we cannot pay the full amount right away. Salary increases will be paid in installments over four years to reduce inflation or any monetary policy instability.”
Mikati called on the UCC to reconsider its stance, saying that matters were heading toward a solution.
“But a solution will not come under pressure from them. There will be a solution because we are studying the issue in a comprehensive and thorough manner,” he said.
“We will discuss reforms for the administration but we will not bow to threats or act under pressure.”
In discussing the issue of revenues to finance the salary scale, Mikati said the Cabinet has agreed on more than 90 percent of sources for these revenues. He scoffed at the theory that the toppling of the government would lead to the approval of the salary scale. “If there is a vacuum, there will be no salary scale anymore,” Mikati said.
The daylong strike came in response to a call by the UCC in protest of the government’s failure to send the salary scale draft law to Parliament for approval.
“We call on all public and private school teachers to observe the strike and not be intimidated by the threats of the private school administrations to fire insubordinate teachers,” the UCC said in a statement.
However, several private schools – mainly Catholic and Evangelical – ignored the strike call. The head of the Catholic schools said all institutions under its administration would remain open. Many private schools in Beirut opened as usual.
But the picture was not the same in north Lebanon where all public and private school teachers, including those at Catholic schools, took part in the strike. Public institutions were also shut across the north.
“The school opened today in line with head of the Catholic schools’ decision, but teachers and students did not show up,” said the principal of St. Theresa School in Amioun, north Lebanon.
Since the UCC announcement was made late Wednesday, many parents in Beirut, Sidon and elsewhere sent their children to schools.
But students were sent home, as many teachers did not attend their classes in compliance with the strike.
In east Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, public schools and 50 percent of private schools were closed for the day.
Activity at government departments in the Bekaa Valley was hardly effected. Only around 10 percent of public servants abided by the strike.
The UCC, which met Thursday to assess the strike, decided to stage a two-day nationwide strike at the end of the month in all public and private schools, ministries and public departments as part of its moves to push the government to send the salary scale draft to Parliament for approval.
“The strike was a last warning to those concerned to release the salary scale from the Cabinet and quickly send it to Parliament,” the UCC said in a statement.
It added that the strike was “a strong outcry in the face of the policy of procrastination and stalling in adopting specific dates to close this issue once and for all.”
The UCC said it adhered to the provisions of the agreement reached with the ministerial committees on the salary scale.
“These provisions did not refer in any way to the issue of installment or to linking the salary scale to revenues,” the statement said.
The pay scale draft had been delayed despite a preliminary Cabinet decision to raise certain taxes to fund the wage increase for civil servants and public school teachers.
The UCC has said it refuses to finance the salary increases through taxes that affect ordinary citizens, claiming the increment could be easily funded if the Cabinet cut waste, combated corruption and improved tax collection, specifically from Beirut Port.
The Cabinet agreed in principle Wednesday to raise taxes on imported cars from 10 percent to 15 percent; increase taxes on interest on customer deposits from 5 to 7 percent; and increase the fiscal stamp fee on construction permits.
A source told The Daily Star that the Cabinet contemplated raising tax on luxury items such tobacco and alcoholic beverages. But the government will consider other taxes to secure sufficient funds for the higher wages of public sectors employees, the source added.
Mikati has repeatedly said the Cabinet has no intention of raising taxes on limited-income families, although some economists are skeptical that the government will be able to raise enough cash to fund the salary scale.
The Cabinet will hold another meeting Oct. 31 to finalize the taxes and funding source for the pay increases.