Where next for Lebanon's strikers?
Hundreds of striking teachers and public sector employees marched in Beirut Wednesday to protest the continued failure of the Cabinet to refer a salary raise to Parliament, threatening to escalate action further if their demands aren’t met.Protesters marched from Beirut’s Barbir Square to Downtown Beirut, where they gathered near the Grand Serail, the office of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who was attending a Cabinet session at Baabda Palace.
Teachers chanted slogans against the Cabinet and carried banners proclaiming their right to the salary increase.
“Where is the salary raise? You, the Cabinet of delayed promises,” the protestors shouted, before gathering outside the government building.
“Enough procrastination,” read one banner. “Referring the salary raise [to Parliament] is a constitutional duty,” read another.
The strike was called by the Union Coordination Committee, a coalition of teachers at private and public schools and public sector employees. In addition to the demonstration Wednesday, teachers have gone on strike five days since the start of the academic year over the same issue.
Most public schools and some private schools in Lebanon held no classes Wednesday.
Addressing protesters, Hanna Gharib, the head of the Secondary Teachers Association, said that an economic strategy which Mikati proposed during a Cabinet session Monday has “brought us back to square one.”
“Prime Minister Najib Mikati distributed his economic strategy to ministers in the Cabinet session, which calls for instituting the salary raise in installments over five years. This will undermine the value of the raise in the upcoming five years [because it] will witness inflation,” Gharib said.
Under Mikati’s study, according to Gharib, public sector employees and public school teachers would receive a different pay raise than teachers at private schools.
Currently, teachers at public schools are treated on equal footing with those in private schools when it comes to salary raise.
“This jeopardizes the unity of teachers and divides the Union Coordination Committee,” Gharib said.
“This study has brought us back to square one ... this demonstration is the response and reflects the rage over this study,” Gharib explained. “We will abolish this study and all studies they propose at the expense of the private and public sectors.”
Gharib threatened further escalation, saying that just like the two-day strike UCC held in November, the body could paralyze the public sector again in an open-ended strike at any time.
Although it approved the salary raise in September, the government has argued that it would only refer it to Parliament when it secures sources to finance the cost. Teachers argue that the government has reneged on its pledge to refer the draft law to Parliament at the end of August. The private sector began benefitting from the raise almost a year ago.
Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Association of Private Schools Teachers, said that teachers and public sector employees are fed up with the Cabinet’s delay.
“Prime minister, these people who gathered here from across Lebanon, from all sectors ... are fed up and cannot take procrastination anymore: You have to refer the salary raise to Parliament,” Mahfoud said.
“Or else, these people promise to surround the place of the Cabinet meeting every week ... we will never leave the street before the salary raise is referred to Parliament,” he threatened.
Mahfoud urged the Cabinet to impose more taxes on seafront property to secure funding for the salaries and fight corruption in Lebanon’s institutions to help finances the hike.
“If [raising] salaries leads to the collapse of the country [as some in government argue], then what about corruption?” Mahfoud asked.
Leading business representatives argue that the salary raise demanded by UCC would inflict major damage on both the public and private sectors.
Labor Minister Salim Jreissati said after Wednesday’s Cabinet session that the government was still waiting for the comments of the Higher Council of Urban Planning on the proposal to raise the cost of property investment, which could contribute to financing the salary raise. The council’s view on the proposal, expressing reservations about the feasibility of the idea, was leaked to the media later in the day.
In separate remarks to a local radio station, Jreissati said that the government would only refer the raise to Parliament when it could ensure that the pay raise would serve “the people” without jeopardizing the performance of the economy.
“Once it becomes sure that this will not happen, the government will present the two draft laws [one for the salary raise and one to finance the raise] to Parliament,” he said.
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