Reasoned debate

Civil servants protest near the Parliament in Beirut, Tuesday, April 15, 2014. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

The quest for parliamentary endorsement of a new salary scale for Lebanon’s teachers and public workers looks likely to continue for another few weeks, as a committee of MPs studies the matter.

For the most part, the debate isn’t over the legitimacy of the labor demands being expressed, but over how the increase can be funded. The responsibility for passing the legislation is particularly critical at a time when public finances are in no position to take on further burdens. The only way to proceed is by relying on a solid plan to raise revenues in exchange for hiking state expenditures.

One obvious way is to slightly increase the VAT, bearing in mind that critics of this step usually forget that a number of basic commodities are exempt from VAT in the first place. This group of exempt items may even be expanded to ensure that lower-income people aren’t hurt by the VAT rise.

Another problem that must be addressed is the situation of Electricite du Liban, one of the biggest drains on public finances. There is little use in trying to improve the socio-economic situation of tens of thousands of people if there is no attempt to fix the long-standing drain on the economy, namely the underperformance and state subsidies lavished on EDL.

Also, the public sector’s productivity level must be addressed, by increasing the number of hours in the 32-hour work week and eliminating the phenomenon of people receiving paychecks without even showing up to work in the first place.

Lebanese society deserves the new salary scale. But if the state doesn’t move ahead with meaningful reforms, economic stagnation will result and society will end up paying the price down the road.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 17, 2014, on page 7.




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