Teachers demonstrating Wednesday near the Grand Serail gave the government 10 days to either implement a new salary scale for the public sector or resign.
Addressing demonstrators, Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Association of Private Schools Teachers, delivered an ultimatum to the government: “Either the Cabinet passes the salary scale within 10 days or it leaves.”
Meanwhile, inside the Grand Serail, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who was chairing a Cabinet session at the same time, said the teachers were holding hostage the fate of 100,000 students, and expressed surprise that the educators were escalating their protest when an agreement addressing most of their demands had been reached.
A number of ministers participating in the session told The Daily Star that funds for the new salary scale have yet to be secured but that Cabinet was trying its best to secure additional revenues through several means, which would soon include raising taxes.
Heeding a call by the Union Coordination Committee, teachers and public sector employees marched from the Barbir Square to the Grand Serail.
The teachers promised to continue their boycott of correcting grade 9 and grade 12 official exams until a new salary scale for the public sector is passed by the Cabinet.
The salary scale will enable teachers at private and public schools and public sector employees to benefit from a salary raise introduced to the private sector in January.
Teachers, who would also receive additional benefits, argue that Mikati did not keep his promise to pass the scale in June.
For his part, Hanna Gharib, the head of Secondary Teachers Association, said that the UCC would not resume marking exams and would take additional escalatory measures until the salary scale is passed.
“Promises and commitments are no longer sufficient,” Gharib said, urging students’ families to “move swiftly to pressure the government to approve the scale.”
Touching on the demonstration, Mikati said during the session that people have the right to express their demands when allowed by law.
However, the premier said it was unacceptable that the teachers’ protest hold hostage the futures of 100,000 students, “twisting the government’s arm.”
Mikati said teachers are ignoring the fact that the Cabinet took the initiative and proposed the salary scale in the first place to increase equality in society.
He said it was illogical to lay at the feet of the Cabinet problems that have been accumulating over the past year and demand that the government address them without studying their effects on the economy.
“Amid these delicate circumstances, we cannot accept threats to social and financial stability and exhaust the treasury with additional burdens,” Mikati said.
The economic effects of the salary scale are currently being studied by a ministerial committee.
The prime minister said that the ministerial committee had extensively studied the repercussions of the salary scale on the economy in four sessions and the committee will meet next week.
Mikati said that he was surprised that teachers were upping the ante after he had agreed with their representatives on means to address 80 percent of their demands.
For his part, Education Minister Hassan Diab called on teachers to end their boycott of marking exams as soon as possible in order to allow students who had received scholarships in universities in the United States, Europe and Canada to begin their studies.
“The academic year in some of these universities starts early next month,” Diab said. “Thus, if results are not announced ... in a period of a week maximum, these students will lose the scholarships.” Students in Lebanon have to pass grade 12 official exams to be accepted to university.
The minister also said that if teachers continue their boycott, there might not be enough time to hold the second round of official examinations for students who failed the first round.
Diab, who spoke to reporters while the meeting was still in session, said that Mikati supports the agreement reached between the UCC and a subcommittee from the ministerial committee to address most of the demands. He said, however, that the rest of UCC’s demands’ are beyond the control of the Education Ministry.
The UCC is demanding that the pension of retired employees and teachers increase in line with the new set salary.
“But we cannot address this matter in a push of [a] button because this requires some time,” Diab said.
The UCC refuses to allow the salary scale of teachers be dealt with separately from the rest of public sector employees, saying this threatens the unity of the body.
“I ask what justifies the continued boycott of marking exams?” Diab said. “The Education Ministry is not responsible for retirees in the entire public sector.”
Separately, sources told The Daily Star that Mikati will travel Thursday to London on an official invitation to take part in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games Friday.
In other business, the Cabinet approved a master plan for prisons in Lebanon along with a request by the Finance Ministry to issue Eurobonds.