Lebanon's Economic Committees say no to basic freedoms
Without any attempt to conceal their intentions, Lebanon’s Economic Committees (ECs), which represent private sector interests and employers, have revealed their hostile attitudes to civil rights and basic freedoms. That is to say, with the exception of the freedom to hoard wealth and concentrate it in the hands of the few.
On Thursday, 31 January 2013, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati received a list of demands submitted by the ECs as their condition for accepting the invitation to an overdue “economic dialogue.” They notably include:
■ Enforcing Article 15 of the Labor Law, which prohibits public sector workers from striking or inciting others to strike; organizing collective petitions related to the job; and joining professional organizations or unions.
■ Enforcing Article 65 of the same law, which deems any employee involved in a strike to have resigned from service by default.
The ECs did not put these two conditions at the top of their proposal arbitrarily. Their aim was to become directly involved in the efforts underway to fortify the existing “regime,” which had earlier required a maximalist fatwa declaring civil marriage a grave sin.
This was preceded by a few other actions that help to reinforce the status quo: focusing the electoral debateon the Orthodox Gathering draft law; the endorsement of a law that bars Lebanese women from passing on their citizenship to children from non-Lebanese fathers; the rejection of the law aimed at curbing domestic violence against women; and blocking the creation of a union for Spinneys workers.
Indeed, the ECs are afraid that the Union Coordination Committee (UCC) may win the battle for having the new salary scale approved by parliament for civil servants and teachers. For one thing, this may compel the government to finance the wage hike by taxing real estate transactions and financial profits – something that the “rentier lobby” wants to avoid at all costs.
It is worth mentioning that the government was forced last year to refer a draft law to parliament that would abolish the need for obtaining a license in advance of forming public and private sector trade unions. If passed, this law would encourage the creation of trade unions that are independent of “the lobby” that seems to have a stake in preserving the current sectarian quota system and economic model.
Yet for this lobby, the demands to enforce the anti-strike clauses, which are inconsistent with the Lebanese Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, do not go far enough. The document submitted to the PM Mikati also included a call for using “violence” in the suppression of protests, including those demanding the release of Georges Abdallah.
The document urged the government to crack down on riots and unrest, which may include road blockings; occupation of buildings and public places; threatening Lebanese and foreign economic interests; and robberies and kidnappings for ransom.
These were all lumped together to make it appear as though the call for the crackdown is legitimate. But in reality, the goal of this appeal is to give legal cover for involving the army and the security forces in clamping down on popular anger against socio-economic policies.
Based on these demands, the EC document identifies what can be achieved after taking tougher security measures and scaling back public and personal freedoms. Most notably:
■ Rejecting the new salary scale “given the expected financial, monetary, and economic repercussions, which will wipe out the purchasing power of salaries and wages.”
■ Fulfilling the pledges to enhance the partnership between the public and private sectors – i.e. privatization – and issuing the necessary regulations to this end.
■ Collecting taxes, fees, and other amounts payable by employers to the government in installments, and abolishing all fines and interest payments due on value-added taxes (VAT).
■ Refraining from adding taxes – especially on profits and speculation in financial markets and real estate – because this would aggravate the recession at a time when the economy needs to be stimulated.
■ Implementing Lebanon’s reform commitments as stated in Paris Conference III (increasing VAT and taxes on gasoline and eliminating subsidies for certain agricultural sectors and goods, and pressing ahead with privatization).
The EC document also included 18 additional demands with varying degrees of importance, including some that were concealed under deceptive titles. For instance, “administrative reform” as it happens is a cover for dismantling the cadres and administrations of the state, while “stimulating economic growth” involves the same bases that led to increased inequality, further brain drain and focusing the economy of Lebanon on serving regional rentier investments.
Other deceptive demands include restoring confidence in goods distributed in Lebanon (read: stepping up protection for exclusive agencies and eliminating any real competition in the market); and passing a law that would put a cap on the budget deficit linked to GDP growth and Lebanon’s credit rating, provided that the deficit does not exceed 6 percent of the GDP.
Meanwhile, the document mentions demands that are indeed necessary, such as addressing the electricity and telecom crises, repairing infrastructure, and dealing with the chronic problem of traffic congestion in the country.
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