Tens of thousands march in Beirut for wage hikes

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Tens of thousands of public sector employees and school teachers protest to demand lucrative banks and big businesses pitch in to fund the wage hike bill. (Photo: Marwan Bouhaidar)

By: Marc Abizeid, Rana Harbi

Published Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tens of thousands of public sector employees and school teachers marched in Beirut Tuesday to demand lucrative banks and big businesses pitch in to fund the wage hike bill in one of the largest workers rallies to hit Lebanon in years.

Marchers, waving colorful banners and chanting slogans accusing the government and banks of theft and corruption, began their protest outside Lebanon's central bank.

"Look at my salary, it doesn't last me half a month. How much do you make?" they sung outside the bank. "We're right here. Pretend you don't see us!"

The Union Coordination Committee (UCC) – a conglomerate of public sector associations and schools – had asked public and private schools and government offices across Lebanon to observe the one-day strike to rally for higher wages.

The UCC is calling on Parliament to pass a bill that would increase the salary scale by 121%, and to fund it without raising taxes on basic goods.

In addition to imposing taxes on bank profits, activists want to tax billionaires who own the luxury seafront properties.

"I don't see them giving us the pay scale we're demanding any time soon," Kassem Mubarak, a teacher at a trade school for electricians, told Al-Akhbar. "But we're going to keep on protesting to show everyone that we are serious."

"I didn't use to protest when they started about two years ago, but now it's getting more serious," he added. "There will be more and more protests and they will keep getting bigger."

The protest comes as a follow up to last year's month-long open strike spearheaded by the UCC which paralyzed much of the country, with hundreds of schools and government offices remaining shut for weeks.

What had evolved into a mass movement to pressure Parliament to adopt a wage scale bill was suspended after the March 2013 resignation of former Prime Minister Najib Mikati put parliament out of commission for about a year.

Tuesday's protest began as a few hundred people rallying outside the bank, but their numbers swelled to several thousand as they marched east from Hamra towards their destination of Riad al-Solh Square near Parliament in downtown Beirut.

People on balconies clapped and cheered on the crowd as they marched down Spears Street. Hundreds of police and army had deployed to observe the crowds and redirect motorists.

Nehme Mahfoud, head of the Private Teachers Syndicate, estimated the number of protesters to have reached tens of thousands, telling Al-Akhbar that their numbers "will double if the demands are not met."

The march stopped briefly outside the Association of Banks near the entrance to Gemayze where protesters again hurled a slew of insults against bankers.

The sites were symbolically chosen to send a message to Lebanon’s wealthy classes that their time has come to contribute to the wage bill.

"It is taking years for us to get our rights because of these crooks in our country," Norma Ibrahim, a teacher at Broumana public school, told Al-Akhbar.

"We haven't had a pay raise in years. Our cost of living is skyrocketing and our salaries are stagnant," she added. "These are our rights we are asking for!"

Big business has bitterly rejected proposals for them to help fund the salary bill.

Banks across the country held a one-day strike earlier this month to let the government know it would not accept a proposal to fund the wage scale by adding a mere 2% tax on profits on their interest revenues.

Once in downtown a younger group of demonstrators began chanting against the real estate giant Solidere, whose name has become synonymous for Lebanon's poor with greed and corruption after forcing an untold number of Beirut residents from their homes in the nineties to make way for luxury suites.

Last week a report showed that Solidere had collected $55 million in net profits in 2013. The company was behind the most of the multi-million dollar luxury real estate projects in downtown Beirut and along the seafront.

Now the UCC is demanding the real estate sector contributes to the wage scale, but like the banks and other other big businesses, they continue to resist. "Solidere, we will take you down," the protesters warned.

A podium awaited organizers outside Parliament.

"We will not accept the adoption of a law that redeems our rights at the expense of the poor and less privileged," Hanna Gharib, head of the UCC, said in a speech.

He was referring to proposals to fund the wage scale by taxing basic necessities that would further burden working class.

"We wont accept the funding of the scale unless it is funded with the money of the corrupt," he said.

Gharib also called on the government to create more public sector jobs, "for no state exists without state employees," and urged for it to improve the quality of public schools so the citizens "so we can start sending our children there."

The vast majority of students in Lebanese attend private schools, as public schools are notorious for being grossly underfunded.

Hundreds of high school and university students also joined the protest in solidarity with their teachers and professors.

Lebanese University student Omar Mouseleh, 21, told Al-Akhbar that he has attended nearly every wage scale protest since last year.

"This issue affects us all," and not just teachers and workers, he said. "I could have spent my day doing something else, but this is important to me."

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