Wage tug-of-war in Lebanon

Published December 21st, 2011 - 07:45 GMT
The ministers are involved in a tug-of-war over two plans, by the premier and the labor minister
The ministers are involved in a tug-of-war over two plans, by the premier and the labor minister

Lebanon’s Cabinet is due to convene Wednesday to discuss a bread-and-butter issue that is important to most people in the country – adjusting wages and benefits. As they grapple with the matter, ministers don’t have to worry about the regional or international implications of what they do, unlike the topic of funding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, for example. But the same depressing “drama” exists. The government is unable to produce a smooth agreement on what is largely a technical matter, involving figuring out what is fair, what is legal and what will ultimately benefit the economy.

The ministers are involved in a tug-of-war over two plans, by the premier and the labor minister. There are reports that those who earlier backed the Najib Mikati-authored program, which had to be adjusted to meet the requirements of the Shura Council, will now throw their weight behind the plan authored by Charbel Nahhas.

The vote might go either way, but the difference between the plans will largely be a question of percentages. But it would be more useful to launch economic policies that stimulate growth, so that the entire effort isn’t about increasing government expenditures. Also, promises of a wage hike aren’t necessarily music to the ears of everyone; many would like to first see effective price controls as inflation continues to wipe out more and more of any coming salary increase. Perhaps the government can get away with this kind of disappointing economic performance because the labor movement is so weak and uninspiring.

The General Labor Confederation is making noise about holding a strike before the end of the month, although it could very well approve the government’s final decision. This isn’t surprising, since the same groups in the government control the GLC.

Meanwhile, the country’s teachers unions, which unlike the GLC enjoy credibility and much more internal cohesion, have indicated that they will not take part in the Dec. 27 strike, signaling that the labor movement’s official leadership is sorely lacking.

For their part, the private sector’s representatives have indicated they do not approve of the government’s moves. Instead of working together, the three main players – government, labor and business – are each singing a different tune.

Conducting economic policy might not be as “sexy” as negotiating the STL funding issue, but both items have a huge impact on the public. In this case, people want to know what they will be making, and what they will be paying, and whether the situation is intolerable and calls for emigration.

Cabinet must take action to fix the economic situation and ensure that widespread anger over prices, wages and benefits doesn’t spill over into explosions in the streets. And unlike the STL issue, there is no magic “Higher Relief Committee” solution on the horizon.

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