Strike cripples key government offices

Civil servants and public school teachers stage a sit-in near the VAT building in Beirut. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: An open-ended strike paralyzed a number of key state institutions and public schools across Lebanon Wednesday as demonstrators threatened to freeze work at a new government department each day until they receive a wage hike.

On the second day of the strike, many employees at the Finance Ministry’s Value Added Tax department closed their offices and joined a sit-in organized by the Union Coordination Committee outside the ministry’s building.

“Today, we gather outside the VAT building, which pays for the cost of debt servicing from the pockets of the people ... Today, we froze work at the VAT department as a first step before we paralyze all the ministry’s departments,” UCC head Hanna Gharib told the demonstrators.

“Tomorrow, it will be the Education Ministry ... and so on. Ministry after ministry, we will carry on with the open-ended strike to block all administrative work,” Gharib added.

“The state belongs to its sons, not merchants,” read a banner held by demonstrators outside the VAT department. “To govern, you have to be a decision-maker. To those who aren’t, we say resign,” another slogan read.

The slogan was likely addressed to Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whom civil servants accuse of succumbing to pressure from the Economic Committees by breaking an earlier promise to approve the wage hike bill and refer it to Parliament for ratification.

As Gharib was addressing protesters outside the VAT department in Beirut, major cities and towns across the country were witnessing similar rallies outside government serails.

The UCC held sit-ins outside nine government serails across Lebanon Wednesday and will shut down all 27 serails Thursday, according to Gharib.

Even some civil servants who reported for duty Tuesday refrained from doing any work, The Daily Star noticed in a tour of a number of state institutions.

President Michel Sleiman said at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that the new salary scale had been approved by the government and that Mikati, who is seeking to secure funding for the salary increase, would soon refer it to Parliament.

Mikati plans to amend urban zoning regulations to increase the investment factor, allowing for an additional floor in buildings in return for higher taxes, which will be used to finance the wage hike that will cost the treasury more than $1.2 billion a year.

“We are being misled. The prime minister says the wage hike draft law will be sent to Parliament as agreed, yet some ministers say it needs to be amended. We want the truth,” head of the vocation education league Elie Khalife, said.

While public school teachers throughout Lebanon abided Wednesday by the strike, classes at many private schools were held as normal despite the participation of Naim Mahfoud, head of private school teachers union, in Tuesday’s protests. “I hail private school teachers who were threatened to report to work but held strikes today at their school,” Mahfoud said.

In a bid to pile further pressure on the government, Gharib said official exams for grades nine and 12 would be delayed.

“Students will not sit for official exams unless they complete their curriculum,” he said, adding that missed school days due to the strike would be compensated for.

However, a source at the Education Ministry, which has already announced the dates of the official tests, told The Daily Star that unions had no say on when official examinations were held.

Exams for grade nine, or Brevet, students are scheduled to take place on June 11-14. Grade 12 students in scientific fields are scheduled to sit for the exams between June 17-22 and for those in the fields of literature and humanities between June 24-29.

The unions are “heading toward yet another confrontation” with the government, Gharib said before wrapping up his speech.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 21, 2013, on page 1.




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