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UCC to escalate strike after talks with PM fail

Protesting teachers hold up a banner that reads, “We reject the siphoning of our pension funds to finance the wage hike and we insist on our heirs’ right to receive it in full.”

BEIRUT: Civil servants and school teachers will maintain an open-ended strike for a second day Wednesday, threatening further escalatory steps if Cabinet fails to refer a long-awaited wage hike to Parliament for ratification.

“Wednesday will be a day of sit-ins outside the Finance Ministry in Beirut and the grand serails of Tripoli, Mount Lebanon, Beiteddine, Baabda, Jounieh, Zahleh, Baalbek, Sidon and Nabatieh at 10 a.m.,” head of the Union Coordination Committee Hanna Gharib said following talks with Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the Grand Serail.

The outcome of the meeting was “negative,” Gharib added.

Public schools across the country closed their doors Tuesday and hundreds of civil servants gathered outside the Grand Serail in Beirut, shouting slogans and holding banners slamming both the government and the Economic Committees, a body of leading private sector figures.

Some private school teachers joined the strike but the majority of private schools remained open.

“Stop all administrative operations, stop all classes and strike,” Gharib told public workers and teachers.

In a bid to appease the anger of protesters a few hours after the sit-ins were dismantled, Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi announced that the government would refer the draft bill to Parliament within two weeks.

Mikati had promised UCC representatives last week to forward the wage hike draft proposal to Parliament Monday but delayed the referral of the draft law after a meeting with the Economic Committees.

The Economic Committees have warned against the negative impact of the wage hike in light of slowing economic growth. Mikati, however, denied succumbing to pressure by the private sector and said his government hadn’t backed down on its promise but was seeking to secure funds for the wage hike that would cost the treasury more than $1.2 billion a year.

Mikati told reporters Monday that the salary scale was approved “a long time ago but we have to follow up on such a proposal so that no negative repercussions [on the economy] ensue.”

Ministerial sources told The Daily Star that members of the government had asked Mikati for some time to study his proposal to amend urban zoning regulations to increase the investment factor, allowing for additional floor building in return for higher taxes.

The Directorate for Urban Planning had dropped previous reservations on Mikati’s plan but asked to restrict additional floor permits only to buildings that are under construction. Owners of existing buildings will not be permitted to add floors, the directorate said.

Despite Mikati’s guarantees that the salary scale increase would be referred to Parliament soon, protesters still questioned the government’s intentions.

“They have given a lot of illogical reasons for why they cannot fund the hike ... it seems there is a lot of theft and dissipation of resources, otherwise they could have easily secured the finances” without looking further, a Tripoli school principal, who didn’t wish to disclose her identity, told The Daily Star. “There is no solution except for an open strike until we get our rights ... we are all ready to compensate the students [for missed courses] during vacation time or weekends. We’ll make it up to them, but we should get our rights first after [waiting for] a year and a half,” she added.

Nehmeh Mahfoud, the head of the Association of Private Schools Teachers told the crowd outside the government headquarters that teachers would end the sit-in only when Cabinet meets and refers the pay scale to Parliament.

“No sane person in the Lebanese state would approve a 100 percent pay raise for some sectors and leave other sectors like the military, security forces, teachers and employees,” he complained.

“We trusted their promises but then they broke them ... we need tangible results. We have the interest of students at heart but for our students to continue their studies, we need to receive our rights so that we can carry on with our lives and go to schools,” another teacher said.

Fouad al-Dirani, an employee at the of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Ministry who participated in the UCC’s protest, told The Daily Star that the salary raise would help boost productivity within public administrations and reduce squandering of resources, “or corruption in other words,” he added.

Georges Raad, an employee at the Agricultural Ministry, urged unity among labor unions and civil servants, criticizing few individuals who have taken sides with the private sector to “protect their own interests.”

“They promised us yesterday they would solve it, and they didn’t, they postponed it again ... We’ve tried everything else ... This is what union mobilization is about,” an employee of the Education Ministry said.

Earlier Tuesday, Gharib warned that the government’s policy of stalling was no longer acceptable. “We are going to explode from so much pressure,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 20, 2013, on page 1.

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