Lebanon's public school teachers ask for 'very basic' improvements in latest strike

Public school teachers say they cannot continue to teach without liveable wages and transport allowance

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Lebanon's public school teachers entered their third day of strike action with a protest outside the Education Ministry on Wednesday.

Hundreds gathered to express their discontent over devalued salaries and the dire work conditions under which they have been operating since the start of Lebanon’s prolonged economic crisis.

While most goods and services in the financially struggling nation are now priced either in US dollars or their equivalent in local currency, teachers do not receive a salary commensurate with the rate of inflation.

Lebanon’s financial collapse, now in its fourth year and with no signs of abating, has driven more than 80 per cent of the population into poverty after banks informally imposed capital control that locked people out of the full value of their savings.

The local currency is now worth just a fraction of what it once was, while inflation hovers in the triple digits.

'Our place is in the classroom, not the streets'

High school maths teacher Hanan Fawaz says her demands are “very basic".

Ms Fawaz and other teachers want salary adjustments that match the local currency’s rapid devaluation — preferably paid in US dollars — transport allowances and better healthcare coverage.

A public school teacher’s monthly wage is about 3,000,000 Lebanese pounds a month, or almost $70, which is “not even enough to get us to school", she said.

“We’re not disconnected from reality," Ms Fawaz said. "We know what the economic situation is in the country, so we’re not making unrealistic demands.

"But every other public sector got a salary adjustment for employees. Why not us?”

Another protester nodded emphatically.

“Our place is in the classroom, not in the streets,” she said. “We taught the ministers and the judges and all those who are in positions of power now.

"It was teachers who got them to where they are today. So now they need to take responsibility.”

Public school teachers were on strike sporadically throughout 2022, with the most recent strike lasting more than a month.

It ended with promises from the Education Ministry that salaries would be tripled and each teacher would receive another monthly incentive of $130, paid in Lebanese lira at the set Central Bank’s Sayrafa rate.

They would also receive a transport allowance of 95,000 lira for each working day.

But the $130 monthly incentive did not arrive.

“The Education Minister promised something he wasn’t able to deliver,” said Hussein Jawad, who leads the public school teachers' union.

“And the day that our salary adjustments came into effect, the lira devalued further against the dollar. Every teacher lost around $60 from their salary before they even received it.”

Fuel prices have also skyrocketed: at the time the transport allowance was promised, a litre of petrol was 300,000 lira.

“Now it’s over 800,000 lira and the transportation stipend is already almost worthless,” Mr Jawad said.

Some teachers struggled to make it to Wednesday's protest.

“They gave us our demands with their right hand and they took everything away with their left hand,” Mr Jawad said, trying to illustrate the futility of receiving local salary adjustments in Lebanon’s swiftly devaluing currency.

Public school teachers strike outside the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Beirut, Lebanon. Matt Kynaston / The National

The overstressed and overcrowded public education sector is in a dire predicament.

Teachers say they are faced with no choice but to strike again now that their salaries have again drastically devalued and drained their purchasing power.

But many teachers were at pains to distance themselves from the teacher’s unions, which they said did not represent them.

They say the unions have affiliations to Lebanon’s political parties, which are widely regarded as having contributed to the country’s economic demise.

“We didn’t come here for the syndicates, we came to represent ourselves because they don’t represent us,” said Ms Fawaz.

Teachers were at a breaking point last week when the caretaker minister of education, Abbas Halabi, announced a decision to provide teachers with a $5 incentive for every day worked.

Teachers and their syndicates, or unions, saw this decision as a humiliation, prompting outrage.

As a result of the strike the spring semester has yet to begin, renewing doubts about the quality of Lebanon’s struggling public school education.

“There’s no education any more,” said Mustafa Hussein, 18, who attended the sit-in to support his teachers.

“We’re seeing our future slip away but we can’t blame the teachers. They’re trying as hard as they can to teach us every day.”

Mr Jawad told The National that the strike was technically due to finish by the end of the week, but would be renewed on a weekly basis if teachers’ demands were not met.

Updated: January 11, 2023, 9:09 PM