Lebanon's public sector goes on strike over pay-cut fears

Government is discussing painful reforms to the public sector as it tries to cut budget deficit

Supporters of the Lebanese Communist party wave their party flags along with Lebanese national flag during a demonstration to mark May Day and protest against corruption and the misuse of public funds, on May 1, 2019 in Beirut.  / AFP / AA / ANWAR AMRO
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Lebanese civil servants responded to a call from unions to strike on Thursday, Friday and Saturday as a warning to the government not to cut their salaries in its attempts to reduce a huge deficit .

The General Confederation of Lebanese Workers, one of the country’s biggest unions, called for the strike on Tuesday and rejected any proposal “to reduce the salaries of public workers as a solution to cover the corruption that has caused the impoverishment of the country”.

The strike was observed in several regions, including Hermel, Western Bekaa, Marjayoun, Nabatieh and Akkar, state news agency NNA reported.

The labour and finance ministers met the union's leader, Beshara Asmar, on Thursday to discuss “issues related to some budget articles”, NNA said.

Mr Asmar said the ministers spoke of different ways to reduce the state’s debt but he did not give more details.

Asked whether he would suspend the strike after the meeting, Mr Asmar said he would check with his colleagues before making an “appropriate decision”.

The Cabinet has scheduled daily meetings from Tuesday until Sunday to finalise a draft budget to put before Parliament when Ramadan begins next week.

Information Minister Jamil Jarrah said after Wednesday’s meeting that he hoped “everyone, including pensioners and unions, will wait for the Cabinet’s decisions and will not cause disturbance in the country, demonstrate or block roads”.

Lebanon pledged to bring in economic reforms to reduce its fiscal deficit by one per cent of GDP a year over the next five years after being promised nearly $11 billion (Dh40.4bn) in loans from international institutions and donor countries in April last year.

Finance Minister Ali Khalil has said that the draft budget for 2019 projected a deficit of less than 9 per cent of GDP, compared to 11.2 per cent in 2018.

The Lebanese daily Al Liwaa noted that the budget discussions had "serious social and economic implications" this year because of the country's record high public debt, equal to 150% of GDP, and low growth, estimated at just 0.2 per cent in 2018 by the World Bank.

Worried that their pensions could be cut, retired military personnel briefly blocked access to Beirut’s port, the central bank and the Finance Ministry’s directorate of imports on Tuesday morning.

There was no official count of of protesters but dozens of demonstrators were seen at the various locations. Retired general Georges Nader put the total figure at 4,000.

prominent members of parliament who served in the army, such as former brigadier general Shamel Roukoz, a son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, have expressed sympathy for the demonstrators.

After a meeting with the president on Wednesday, the MPs called for a special committee to be set up to decide where spending on the military could be reduced.

This is the second time that civil servants and retired military officers have staged protests since ministers started issuing contradictory statements about whether salaries and pensions might be cut.

In mid-April, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said the option was being considered, but Mr Khalil denied it.

Labour Minister Camille Abousleiman said on Wednesday that austerity measures would not affect people with low income.

Demonstrators routinely accuse politicians of squandering state money.

The government should “restore looted funds” instead of “taking money from the poor and the military”, Gen Sami Ramah said on Tuesday while protesting in front of the Finance Ministry.

The Communist party and the National Federation of Worker and Employee Trade Unions, another of Lebanon’s main unions, organised Labour Day marches in Beirut on Wednesday, urging the government to protect workers’ rights.