|26 September, 2017

Lebanon's cabinet mulls temporary salary fix

The Cabinet is set to meet Tuesday to approve a temporary solution to the wage hike crisis by agreeing to pay public sector employees and schoolteachers a one-month salary based on the new salary scale law

Lebanese deputies cast their votes during the election session at the parliament in Beirut May 25, 2008.

Lebanese deputies cast their votes during the election session at the parliament in Beirut May 25, 2008.

REUTERS/Nabil Mounzer

BEIRUT: The Cabinet is set to meet Tuesday to approve a temporary solution to the wage hike crisis by agreeing to pay public sector employees and schoolteachers a one-month salary based on the new salary scale law, ministerial sources said Monday, a move that is likely to defuse mounting street tensions. Tuesday’s extraordinary Cabinet meeting comes as labor unions, civil servants and schoolteachers piled up pressure on the government to implement the salary scale law by calling for another nationwide strike Tuesday similar to Monday’s walkout that paralyzed the country and brought businesses in ministries, public administrations, schools and municipalities to a standstill.

“The direction within the Cabinet is to pay a one-month salary for public employees, while the Cabinet seeks to find revenues from taxes to cover the total cost of the salary scale law,” a ministerial source told The Daily Star.

The source said the planned payment of a one-month salary for civil servants and public schoolteachers would be followed by “a speedy Parliament session to endorse the tax revenues through an urgent draft law” to be sent by the Cabinet.

The source strongly rejected the argument that the Cabinet acted only in response to street pressure.

“By paying public employees’ salaries based on the new wage scale law, the Cabinet is implementing a law that has been approved by Parliament,” the source said.

Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil said in a statement that the ministry has prepared the public sector’s salary schedules based on the “new salary scale law as part of its commitment the law in force.”

Khalil, a top aide to Speaker Nabih Berri, said he will confirm this matter during the Cabinet session to be held at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Grand Serail.

A statement issued by Khalil’s media office said the finance minister has also finalized the “amendments to taxes mentioned in the Constitutional Council’s decision as a prelude to endorsing them” in Parliament.

During an emergency session Sunday to discuss a plan for funding the recently passed salary scale law in the absence of new taxes following the Constitutional Council’s annulment last week of the tax hike law in its entirety, the Cabinet promised to take “important decisions” Tuesday to resolve the thorny issue of the salary scale law, whose cost is estimated at over $800 million annually.

Berri, who has said he respected the Constitutional Council’s decision, appeared Monday to be criticizing the council, stressing that Parliament is the body that constitutionally has the right to endorse draft laws.

“Let us not forget that Parliament is the one that constitutionally legislates draft laws and not the other way round,” Berri said in a statement released by his media office. “The Constitutional Council’s verdict did not come from angels.”

Calling on the government to implement the salary scale law, he said: “The body [Parliament] that has the right to legislate spending, always has the right to legislate revenues and taxes inside or outside the [state] budget.”

Berri was apparently responding to the Constitutional Council’s demand in its repeal of the tax hike law, that proposed taxes to fund the salary scale law should be integrated into the 2017 draft state budget which has yet to be ratified by Parliament. However, Judge Issam Sleiman, the president of the Constitutional Council, struck back at critics, saying the solution to the salary scale crisis is through the endorsement of the state budget along with a breakdown of extra-budgetary spending in past years.

“We don’t give a damn about political revenge. We have done our duties as dictated by the national interest to protect the sacred public money which should not be used in a random manner as has been happening with the absence of the [state] budget and the audit [of extrabudgetary spending] since 2005,” Sleiman told the Central News Agency. “Our conscience is clear and we are not afraid of political punishment.”

Sleiman added that that the absence of the state budget and a breakdown of extrabudgetary spending for more than 10 years “opened the door to the waste of public money and the proliferation of corruption in all sectors of the state.”

The Constitutional Council’s decision to annul the tax hike was taken because the law was passed in the absence of a state budget, violating Article 83 of the Constitution. Lebanon has not had a state budget since 2005, leading to extrabudgetary spending in the millions of dollars.

President Michel Aoun, talking to journalists accompanying him on the plane that flew him to Paris on an official visit to France, said that the salary scale law would be implemented. He said that the most important element of the Constitutional Council’s decision was the need to endorse the state budget and include in it allocations to cover the salary scale law and Article 87, which talks about the auditing of extrabudgetary spending in past years.

Meanwhile, schoolteachers and civil servants observed a nationwide strike to pressure the government into implementing the salary scale law following the Constitutional Council’s repeal of the tax hike law.

Public and private schools joined the strike in solidarity with a call by the Union Coordination Committee, which represents civil servants and public schoolteachers. The strike also brought activity at ministries, public administrations and municipalities to a standstill.

Heads of the UCC, the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers and other teacher unions called in a joint statement for a general strike Tuesday to coincide with the Cabinet session as part of their stepped up protests to force the government to implement the salary scale law.

“The participants decided to stage a general and total strike Tuesday in public administrations and institutions, autonomous utilities, the Lebanese University and public and private secondary and vocational schools,” said a statement issued after the meeting.

The statement called for massive participation in a sit-in to be staged at 11 a.m. Tuesday outside the Grand Serail to coincide with the Cabinet meeting. “The participants warn the government against the failure to pay salaries at the end of this month on the basis of the new salary scale,” it added.

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