Ghosn to Mikati Government: Increase Wages or ‘Pack up and Leave’

"If the government does not announce a wage increase, I suggest they ‘pack up and leave.’ Our demands are clear. The cabinet must adjust wages before the strike begins on Wednesday." (Photo: Marwan Bu Haidar)

By: Rasha Abouzaki

Published Monday, October 10, 2011

General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL) President Ghassan Ghosn tells al-Akhbar that union workers were insulted by delegates representing Lebanese employers in the Price Index Committee (PIC), which led to his withdrawal from the meetings. The committee is charged with determining a new minimum wage for the country’s workers. As for the current government, Ghosn says they can “pack up and leave” if they do not adjust wages as they promised.

Rasha Abouzaki (RA): Why did the CGTL withdraw from the PIC?

Ghassan Ghosn (GG): The main reason for our withdrawal is that it became pointless to negotiate over raising the minimum wage without addressing the need to adjust worker’s wages overall. This is an illegal proposition, as Article 29 (issued 12 April 1943) requires adjusting wage rates to ensure that workers’ family expenses are met. Similar laws in 1946, 1967, and 1996 — the year of the last wage correction in Lebanon — ordered that the official minimum wage be set and the cost of living adjustment for wages be increased. In light of these laws and the rights of workers, we cannot accept limiting the committee discussions to increasing the minimum wage without addressing the issue of adjusting wages for rising living costs.

In the second to last meeting of the PIC, representatives of Lebanon’s economic sectors said that they would not discuss matters aside from increasing the minimum wage, claiming that the level of general wages is subject to supply and demand and therefore not the committee’s concern. As representatives of the workers, we felt insulted by this remark, which likens workers to commodities subject to market prices.

The second reason for our leaving the committee was the ‘compensation plan’ presented by Finance Minister Mohammad Al Safadi, which implicitly stated that the government would compensate for the wage hike by increasing taxes. This made us feel like the negotiations were a waste of time. Their real intention is to get us to delay our strike on Wednesday. So, we had to withdraw.

RA: Couldn’t you have continued negotiating and announced your disagreement with the employers’ proposals?

GG: This isn’t a matter of disagreement over numbers that can be resolved through negotiations; it’s a fundamental disagreement over principles. The PIC’s job is to deal with the numbers, and the employers do not want to discuss the numbers regarding wage adjustments for cost of living. They consider the official numbers sacred and beyond negotiation. That is why we withdrew.

RA: Hassan Faqih, Vice President of the CGTL, left the meeting with Prime Minister Najib Mikati saying that the door is still open for discussions. How do you explain these contradictory positions?

GG: The ball is in the government’s court. The ministers must carry out their duties and come up with a proposal. We will go on strike in order to pressure the cabinet to fulfill its promises to the Lebanese people. Labor Minister Charbel Nahas has proposed a wage increase that we agreed upon. We simply chose to leave the technical discussions in PIC because we were being dismissed as commodities. We’ve moved the discussion to the cabinet, which must take the appropriate measures in this matter. That’s its role.

RA: Are you confident that the cabinet will meet your demands, or will you try to topple it by resorting to protests and strikes?

GG: We trust the cabinet and believe what the prime minister and other ministers have said to us. They support our demands. Now the time has come to translate these promises into concrete action. As for Minister Al Safadi, he has gone against what the government promised, and we completely reject his ‘compensation plan.’ We expect the cabinet to oppose Al Safadi’s plan and adjust wages before we go on strike. Otherwise, the cabinet will lose the trust of the people, and not just the unions.

If the government does not announce a wage increase, I suggest they ‘pack up and leave.’ Our demands are clear. The cabinet must adjust wages before the strike begins on Wednesday.

RA: The union met with Prime Minister Mikati. Did the meeting produce any positive results?

GG: Prime Minister Mikati is insistent upon improving wages. As he has explained to us, he is in favor of correcting wages and not merely increasing the minimum wage. So we expect positive positions from him in this regard. However, we hope that an adjustment is announced before our national strike on Wednesday. The only thing that would make us call it off would be the fulfillment of our demands. I would like to emphasize that we want an overall correction of wages as well as an increase in the minimum wage

RA: Is the timing of the strike in any way related to political matters such as funding of the international tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination?

GG: Not at all. Our strike is in no way related to the tribunal or any other political issue. The forces pushing against funding the tribunal do not need us to generate opposition. I stress that no political communication has taken place and nobody has discussed this issue with us. We are not coordinating with any politician on this topic, and we will not allow our movement to be exploited for political ends. Our goals are clearly defined. If wages are adjusted to our satisfaction before Wednesday, we will cancel the strike.

RA: Let’s say the GLC carries out its strike on Wednesday. What’s next? Is there a plan of action? And will you be blocking roads and burning tires?

GG: First of all, we want to emphasize that the strike will be peaceful in accordance with the laws that guarantee us the right to protest and strike. It is the job of the state and the security forces to ensure the peaceful nature of the strike by their presence on the streets. If our demands are not met, we will convene the union’s executive council on Thursday. This meeting will determine subsequent steps, be they continued strikes, protests, or activities on the local level. Throughout this period, we will repeat again and again that we will not back down from our demand for an overall wage adjustment.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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