BEIRUT: The Union Coordination Committee warned Wednesday that it would go on a general strike across Lebanon if the government failed to refer a controversial pay scale draft to Parliament the end of the week.
Prime Minister Najib Mikat reiterated Wednesday his call for civil servants to be patient until revenues to fund the salary scale are secured.
“No one is against the salary scale and we are in the final stages,” Mikati told ministers during a Cabinet session.
“We call on the Union Coordination Committee to be patient until we find the appropriate revenue for the draft law.”
He added that he has explained the reality of the situation during a series of meetings with the union.
“Be ready for a general strike across Lebanon if the pay scale is not referred to Parliament this week,” UCC head Hanna Gharib told thousands of protesters, who rallied outside the government’s headquarters in their largest effort so far to pressure the Cabinet to refer the public sector wage scale to Parliament.
The demonstrators, including teachers and civil servants, marched toward the Grand Serail in Beirut Wednesday amid tight security.
Heavily armed riot police and Lebanese soldiers, numbering over 500, deployed along the route between Barbir and the Grand Serial in Downtown Beirut ahead of the planned protest.
Brandishing placards criticizing the government, the teachers and civil servants took off at 11 a.m. from Barbir square, the starting point for the 3-kilometer march to the Serail.
“Oh, Najib [Mikati], the liar goes to fire,” a banner held by one protester read. “Unleash the salary scale,” another read.
Wednesday's demonstration, the biggest since the open-ended strike kicked off last week, is in response to a call by the Union Coordination Committee, a group representing both teachers and civil servants.
The union has for months called on the government to refer a draft public sector wage scale to Parliament for approval.
Gharib, addressing Mikati, said: “You are the prime minister of the Lebanese government. Listen to what the people of Lebanon say and refer the pay scale as stated by the agreement without installments and without causing harm to retirees.”
The UCC head said Wednesday's move was not the peak of their strike action.
"It is the beginning of the hunger revolution in Lebanon,” Gharib said.
For his part, Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Association of Private School Teachers, urged President Michel Sleiman to hold an extraordinary Cabinet session to settle the demands of civil servants.
Although Cabinet will meet later in the day, the thorny issue of the wage scale will not be on the table, Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi said Tuesday.
Mahfoud, referring to recent remarks by Safadi, accused the finance minister of succumbing to pressure from the private sector.
Economic Committees, representing the private sector, strongly oppose the referral of the wage hike, arguing it will lead to soaring inflation and higher budget deficits.
Last week, Safadi requested a two-week delay to secure funds for the wage hike, estimated to cost the treasury around $1.2 billion annually.
But the finance minister Tuesday seemed to retract his support for the pay hike when he implied that raising the salaries of civil servants would dictate a similar raise for private sector employees.
The minimum monthly wage was fixed at $450, effectively rising by $116 (LL175,000) for those on the minimum pay.
The strike has crippled most government services as well as all public schools since Feb. 19.
The education minister has also warned of possible delays in official exams for Grade 9 and 12 students.
The march coincided with a top security meeting headed by Sleiman and joined by Prime Minister Najib Mikati at Baabda Palace, north of Beirut.