"Day of rage" in downtown Beirut over wage bill

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Teachers and civil sector workers listen to speeches in downtown Beirut during a rally for higher wages. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Marc Abizeid, Rana Harbi

Published Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Several thousand civil sector workers and teachers rallied in downtown Beirut Wednesday following a week-long strike over Parliament’s failure to approve a wage hike bill after two years of street protests.

Participants marched through several streets in separate groups led by protest organizers singing chants from megaphones before meeting up at Riad al-Solh protest square near Parliament.

"We want to be able to go to work with our heads held high," Hanna Gharib, head of the Union Coordination Committee (UCC) behind rally, said in a speech.

"Restore our dignity!" Gharib demanded from Parliament, which went in session Wednesday. Legislators were expected to discuss the draft wage scale bill, but it was unlikely to be voted on.

The demonstration came after several days of action organized by the UCC, a coalition of public sector workers’ syndicates and teachers unions, which is calling for 121 percent pay raises.

In his speech, Gharib also responded to parliament speaker Nabih Berri who had asked the union chief to apologize for comments he made accusing the 128-member legislator of corruption.

"I didn't accuse all the deputies of being corrupt. I'm addressing those who violate the citizens' rights and steal their money on a daily basis," Gharib said.

"Today's protest reflects the true face of democracy," Khaled Hadadi, general-secretary of the Lebanese Communist Party, told Al-Akhbar at the rally.

Protesters traveled from across the country to take part. All of those Al-Akhbar spoke to said Wednesday's protest was not their first over the wage scale issue.

"I've been coming out since day one of the protests. I remain hopeful," Nadia Youssef, an economics teacher at the Hassan Saab Public High School in Beirut, said.

"But I know these [MPs] are criminals and crooks. They don't benefit from funding our wage scale," she added.

Mounir Skaff, a mukhtar from Zahle, said he traveled with a group of teachers and workers in two vans to participate in the rally.

"I'm no stranger to protests," he said. "I participate in all protests, not just for the wage scale, but for all civil causes, including the protests to overthrow [Lebanon's] sectarian system."

"At the end of the day the people will succeed," he said. "The people are always stronger."

The UCC has been organizing rallies for two years over the wage scale bill. On Tuesday the workers had protested outside the Ministry of Tourism. A day earlier they rallied at the Ministry of Social Affairs. And before that, the education ministry.

They move around, but the message remains consistent: The UCC wants its 121% pay hike. It wants it to be given retroactively starting from 2012. And it will never accept that the bill be funded off the backs of the poor by raising taxes on basic necessities.

A parliamentary committee formed to study a draft bill approved by former Prime Minister Najib Mikati recommended that it be watered down substantially, infuriating the union activists.

March 8 MP Ali Fayyad said in a statement Wednesday that his political block fully supports the protesters' "righteous demands," and that it "refuses Value Added Tax on any purchases."

Fayyad added that "the results given by the committee responsible for studying the wage scale bill are not convincing."

Berri had said that if legislators failed to approve the bill Wednesday, it would brought back for a vote after the May 25 deadline for Parliament to choose a new president.

"After more than 10 years of corruption it's only normal that we see a demonstration of this size," Ibrahim Kurdi, a member of the Union of Lebanese Democratic Youth, told Al-Akhbar at the protest square.

Members of the leftist youth group began chanting "We want to burn down Solidere" as the education minister, surrounded by over a dozen security forces and private body guards, pummeled through the protesters.

"No, we don't want to burn down anything," another protester responded.

Solidere refers to the real estate giant 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.

"Honestly, I was expecting more people to turn out for the protest," Abir Kassis, a sociology teacher from Akkar, told Al-Akhbar. "There are a lot of people, and it's good, but if we really want to get what were asking for, we need to come out en masse."

"If we don't get 100 percent of what were asking for we at least need to see a substantial improvement in our work conditions," she said. "We can't let them act like they are giving us something with one hand and then allow them to take it away with the other hand."

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