Lebanon: Faces behind the struggle for a wage hike

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UCC chief Hanna Gharib (right) stands among teachers and civil sector workers outside education ministry office in Beirut on June 2, 2014. (Photo: Marwan Bu Haidar)

By: Marc Abizeid

Published Monday, June 2, 2014

Overworked, underpaid and ignored by the government for decades, Lebanon’s school teachers and civil sector workers say they can no longer bear the humiliation of having to work multiple jobs merely to prevent them from sinking deep into poverty.

Thousands of those workers on Monday responded to calls by the Union Coordination Committee (UCC) to demonstrate outside education offices and exam centers across the country in the first day of a week of collective action to demand pay hikes.

The UCC, which represents public sector workers and teachers at the crux of a three-year-long battle for increased wages, vowed to boycott students’ official exams due to begin this week until Parliament approves a bill that would increase their salaries by 121 percent.

The several dozen teachers who turned out at an exam center in Beirut’s Corniche al-Mazraa neighborhood, most of them in their late 40s or 50s, described facing hardships after working for years for the same meager wages.

This is what some of them had to say:

Wafaa Z., administrator at the Teacher’s Administration office in Bir Hassan

For us public sector workers, both the husband and the wife must each work more than one job. Everyone in the household needs to work. We don’t buy a piece of clothing unless it’s on sale. We can’t. There are many things like that, everyday things we used to enjoy that we had to stop doing.

Whatever cause you are pursuing, you have to take a stand. You have to make your position known. You have to participate. How much of what we’re asking will we get? I don’t know. We will win something. If after all of this struggle we don’t come away with something, that could cause someone to commit suicide.

Hassan al-Jouz, English teacher at Hassan Abdallah Aleile Public School in Beirut

Hassan al-Jouz: "I'm living in debt" (Photo: Al-Akhbar)Hassan al-Jouz: "I'm living in debt" (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

The old wage scale was approved in 1998. After all these years we’re supposed to get a pay raise because of inflation. That’s why we are calling for a 121% pay increase. They [the UCC] came up with this number after calculating inflation. We were in our last year of school in 1998 when our teachers went on strike for a pay raise. Now it’s our turn. It’s our turn to go on strike to claim our rights in this country. There is no way to get what you want in this country except by doing this (going on strike and boycotting exams).

Yesterday, they were holding a sit-in to save Raouche (Daliyeh). How long has [the UCC] been talking about the wage scale? Three or four years, and the government fails to act. But when some private company comes, it puts its hand on a piece of public property (Raouche), and [the government] gives it away just like that. And us, they give us nothing. From one side you see theft and corruption, and from the other side there are people who are being deprived. I’m a member of the movement for the deprived people!

Mustafa Sukariye, physics teacher at Hassan Abdallah Aleile Public School in Beirut

I’ve been teaching here since 2008, and we’re still getting paid salaries based on the old (1998) wage scale. We have to give private lessons in the afternoons to make a little extra money. This issue of the wage scale has been going on now for three years. The government keeps saying it’s an issue of finance and that they need to keep carrying out studies. We don’t need that, we don’t need any more studies. The financing is there, the government just needs to cut back a little on its waste and if it does that this problem would be solved.

Nawal Shehade, gym teacher at a public school in Tarik al-Jdide.

Nawal Shehade: "It's a shame" (Photo: Al-Akhbar)Nawal Shehade: "It's a shame" (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

It’s a shame that we have so many teachers here that really deserve their basic rights and aren’t getting them. You know, I’ve been a gymnasium teacher since 1994 at a school in Tarik al-Jdideh. I teach scouts three days a week, and I also work with the administration at the Ministry of Education. My time is always full, I work non-stop. Isn’t it a shame that I work this much without being awarded my rights?

On top of that, I face another issue: My husband is a Palestinian, and I don’t have the right to give my son Lebanese citizenship. Every year they talk about giving rights to women married to foreigners. So far they haven’t given us anything. My [23-year-old] son has to leave the country to find work. He hasn’t been able to work here. Is this not an injustice? My husband works. We spend his salary, and mine covers the rent. We used to pay $300 rent per month, now we pay $500.

But now we have this committee (the UCC) that brings together public administration workers, teachers and university professors. We are all standing together. The pressure is on.

Najwa H., administrator at the Teacher’s Administration office in Bir Hassan

I’ve been working at my job for over 30 years. I started while I was still a student at university. Many of us have been here for 30 or 40 years and we still don’t make $1,000 dollars per month. That’s the whole story. And it’s not just us we’re supporting. We have families. I’ve got three children. My husband and one of my sons work just to be able to provide for ourselves. I now tell my children: “Don’t you ever work as a government employee.”

I know we’re not going to get everything we’re asking for. With this government, with this regime, no way. This is what I feel inside. But you have to keep on demanding and demanding so you can at least get something. But [UCC chief] Hanna Gharib has been a Godsend. We’ve never had a strong leader like this before. He is really driving this movement.

Abdallah Najem, teacher at Jamil Rawas Public High School

Abdallah Najem: "I can't tolerate this pressure anymore". (Photo: Al-Akhbar)Abdallah Najem: "I can't tolerate this pressure anymore". (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

This issue is not just important for teachers. It’s important for a huge portion of the Lebanese people. It affects teachers, it affects public sector workers. It affects the police and military. And it affects them for one simple reason: For the employee to be a good worker and demonstrate good performance, whether you are a school teacher or a management worker or a soldier, you need to be provided with a decent salary. This is something normal and logical.

I’ve been teaching for 14 years. Imagine, a teacher of 14 years at a public high school with a master’s degree, and he only makes $1,200 per month. To live, I teach 10 extra hours each week at a private school. Most people get two days off a week, I only get one. There is so much pressure, the pressure keeps building up to a point where you just can’t tolerate it any more. I’ve got a family to raise, to feed. We’ve been protesting now for three years, coming down to the streets, under the rain, we’re not calling for an overthrow of the government, we don’t want to take over power, we just want our rights!

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