Lebanon News

Union calls three-day strike against austerity

Retired Army officers protest in front of the Central Bank against any potential cuts to their pension. The banner reads: “Beware of touching our rights.” (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

BEIRUT: The General Confederation of Lebanese Workers said Tuesday it would go on a three-day strike in order close all public institutions and independent businesses, in a warning against any measure in the 2019 draft state budget that might adversely impact them.

“In light of this direct attack on the rights of workers in public institutions, [we] announce a general strike and the complete closure of all public institutions and independent businesses,” Thursday, Friday and Saturday, a statement said.

Meanwhile, retired military and security personnel blocked entrances to the Banque du Liban headquarters and the Beirut Port as a pre-emptive strike against any budget measures that might affect their retirement wages or benefits.

The protests began around 6 a.m., hours before Cabinet met to begin discussing an austerity budget that proposes reductions to pensions and end-of-service benefits, including school and medical aid, for state employees and retired military personnel.

Demonstrators blocked all the entrances to the port and BDL, and warned of escalations in future protests that would target entrances to all areas the state profits from.

Those at the Beirut Port said they had chosen the location because it was “Ali Baba’s cave” of the state, referring to the “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” folktale.

They were joined by MPs Chamel Roukoz and Jean Talouzian, both retired military men.

“I am here today because I know the cost of martyrdom and injuries. The draft budget is absolutely unfair to the military men, as it affects those with limited income,” Roukoz told local television station Al Jadeed.

One of the protesters at the port, who said he was wounded in 1984, called for the state to implement austerity measures against ministers and MPs instead of veterans.

The man spoke with difficulty because of a facial wound sustained “while defending this land.”

“Go sacrifice the ministers, MPs and presidents,” he said.

A woman who lost her husband, who served in the Army, said, “You steal and take everything. What more do you want? Do not even think about touching the rights of the martyrs’ families.”

Protesters at BDL then moved to Downtown Beirut, where they gathered near Riad al-Solh before marching to the Finance Ministry nearby. Soon after they arrived, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil tweeted that the budget proposals were a result of discussions among multiple parties and that they were subject to change.

“The veterans ... must know that there is no attack on their rights, and the proposals are to organize retirement to ensure its continuity,” he added.

But how does this square with the draft budget, which proposes a 3 percent cut to retirement wages for military personnel?

According to the draft budget, the pension deductions would be directed toward the Treasury as a sort of fee for the health and social benefits veterans receive.

The reason for this was that military personnel benefit from these services without having monthly deductions like other public sector employees do.

“This article was proposed to ensure fairness among all public sector employees,” Khalil said.

The percentage proposed is in line with that assessed to retired administrative employees and teachers, according to the budget.

Local media had previously reported that end-of-service compensation for armed forces personnel, dubbed “Resolution No. 3,” would be reduced as part of the austerity measures.

According to the resolution, end-of-service benefits for military personnel who served in high-risk areas include three years’ worth of salaries for every year of employment.

Later in the day, following the Cabinet meeting, the finance minister reiterated that no discussions had taken place about lowering wages for retired or current military or public sector employees.

Around 12:30 p.m. the Traffic Management Center reported that the protest facing the Central Bank had ended, and that traffic in the area had improved.

At the port, local news channel MTV reported that the number of protesters had fallen to about 200 by 2 p.m., from some 800 earlier in the day. The rest of the protesters stayed until 5 p.m. before dispersing, having succeeded in preventing employees from entering the port, according to reports.

 
This article was amended on Wednesday, May 01 2019

A previous version of this article attributed information about the retired military personnel’s pension deductions to Khalil. In fact, this information came from the draft budget. The Daily Star regrets the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 01, 2019, on page 2.

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