BEIRUT: Civil servants and teachers will march Wednesday toward the government’s headquarters in Beirut to pile pressure on the Cabinet to refer a wage hike draft bill to Parliament when it meets at the Grand Serail.
“The Union Coordination Committee will gather at 11 a.m. in Barbir before heading to the Grand Serail,” UCC head Hanna Gharib told demonstrators outside the Economy Ministry in downtown Beirut.
“Professors, teachers and state employees, whether full-timers or contractors and limited income families are in this together,” he added.
Some 500 teachers and civil servants descended Tuesday morning on the Economy Ministry. Hundreds of security forces had deployed around the capital to reroute traffic and secure the course of the rally, which lasted around 30 minutes.
The protesters shouted slogans condemning Prime Minister Najib Mikati, accusing him of forestalling the endorsement of a wage hike.
“This government doesn’t represent the people. Tomorrow will be its last day if Mikati doesn’t include the wage hike on the Cabinet agenda. Tomorrow, we march from Baalbek, Chouf, Mount Lebanon, Beirut and the Bekaa Valley,” Nehme Mahfoud, head of the private School teachers union told protesters.
Despite escalating threats by protesters, Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi ruled out any discussions regarding the wage hike during Wednesday’s Cabinet session.
“The Cabinet will meet tomorrow at the Grand Serail, but the salary increase will not be on its agenda,” he told reporters at the Grand Serail after meeting with Mikati.
Last week, Safadi asked for a two-week deadline to secure funds for the wage hike that would cost the treasury around $1.2 billion annually. “The deadline has not passed,” he said when asked about the outcome of his efforts.
However, Safadi seemed to retract his support for the wage hike when he implied that raising the salaries of civil servants would dictate a similar raise for private sector employees.
Last December, the government enacted a minimum wage hike, which became retroactively effective in February 2012, for both private and public sector employees.
The minimum monthly wage was fixed at $450, effectively rising by $116 (LL175,000) for those on the minimum pay.
Another wage hike targeting only public sector employees would set a higher minimum wage for civil servants than their peers in the private sector. “When the minimum wage in the public sector surpasses that of the private sector, what will employees of the private sector do? They will ask for a similar raise,” he replied.
“We have to reconsider some numbers and introduce amendments to [the salary increase for public sector employees],” Safadi argued.
The UCC has rejected any amendments to a wage hike draft bill previously negotiated with Mikati.
The prime minister, upon the recommendation of the Central Bank and Economic Committees, has suggested the payment of the wage hike in installments to keep inflation under control and avoid a widening budget deficit.
Sources close to Mikati told The Daily Star on several occasions that if he had to choose between state paralysis and bankruptcy, he prefers to bear the consequences of the open-ended strike.
Several ministries, government departments and public schools plunged gradually into paralysis over the course of the week. Private schools followed suit and closed their doors Tuesday after succumbing to pressure by teachers.
Catholic institutions, which remained open during the week-long strike, decided to close in light of threats by various unions should they open.
“A circular was distributed to Catholic schools Monday asking them to close Tuesday after the hullabaloo that happened outside some private schools,” Father Butros Azar, the secretary-general of Catholic schools told The Daily Star Wednesday.
Azar blamed the government for not taking action to stop acts of harassment, referring to threats by some teachers to block school entrances to prevent students from attending classes.
Education Minister Hassan Diab warned Tuesday that official exams for Grades 9 and 12 scheduled for the summer could be postponed.