BEIRUT: Parliament approved Wednesday a draft law to grant Civil Defense volunteers full-time employment, as public sector workers across Lebanon went on strike to pressure lawmakers to pass a wage hike proposal in their two-day legislative session.
“It is true that endorsing the law will cost a lot of money, but such costs cannot be compared to the blood sacrificed by the Civil Defense,” MP Ali Bazzi of the Development and Liberation parliamentary bloc said after the end of the session, which was adjourned until Thursday morning.
The bill would require volunteers to pass a series of tests before becoming full employees.
Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who also attended the session, opposed the draft law, arguing that the approval of the bill would burden the state’s treasury.
“There are over 3,200 volunteers. This law stipulates turning the Civil Defense General Directorate into an almost military system, and this will result in high financial costs to the state,” Machnouk told lawmakers.
Earlier in the day, one group of Civil Defense volunteers gathered on the Ramlet al-Baida beach, linking hands as they plunged into the sea in a symbolic act of defiance, as others demonstrated outside Parliament demanding the passage of the law.
Some protesters carried photos of a Civil Defense volunteer who died in the line of duty.
“The Civil Defense represents national unity, we are all protesting for the same purpose, Christians, Muslims and Druze,” said one demonstrator.
The protesters in Downtown were joined by civil servants and teachers, led by the Union Coordination Committee (UCC) who went on a nationwide strike to pressure Parliament to implement a new wage scale that would increase their salaries.
Speaker Nabih Berri called for a meeting of the joint parliamentary committees at 3:00 p.m. to continue talks over the salary scale plan. The committees are discussing means to fund the salary increase expected to cost the government at least $1.2 billion.
Head of the Public Administration Employees Mohammad Haidar urged the government “to be fair and pass the salary scale draft law.”
“I say to the lawmakers that they should be fair and pass the law ... but that doesn’t mean you should raise taxes on the poor,” Haidar, standing on a podium in Riad Solh Square, said during the protest.
Appealing to Berri, Haidar said civil servants still have faith in the speaker’s intentions, urging him to schedule a legislative session next week to pass the draft law.
The head of the Private Teachers Association Nehme Mahfoud said workers would give Berri until next week to pass the bill.
“We are suspending strikes until Monday based on a promise by Berri to pass the bill,” he said.
Speaking at the beginning of the session, MP Fouad Siniora, who heads the Future Movement, criticized the protests held by the civil servants and said it “is impossible for Parliament to legislate under such pressure.”
“This way of dealing with the legislative activity in light of the country’s economic situation could have dire consequences for the state,” Siniora said.
“It is not right to please one group of workers at the expense of four million Lebanese who want comprehensive economic reforms,” he added.
The private sector in Lebanon had warned that adopting the new salary scale could plunge the country’s economy into further crisis.
Meanwhile, Electricite Du Liban employees also marched from the EDL headquarters in Corniche Nahr all the way to Riad Solh calling on Parliament to approve a law granting raises and promotions for EDL full-time employees.
Information Ministry contract workers also held a small protest in the capital, demanding Parliament passes a draft law to grant them full-time employment.
In protest of the Parliament’s delay in addressing their demands, the state-run National News Agency also suspended activity for a full day to pressure lawmakers to pass a law that would turn contract workers with the Information Ministry into full time employees.
“The National News Agency apologizes to readers for not broadcasting any news for one day,” the NNA said on its website.
Longtime tenants also took to the street to protest a contentious rent law passed by Parliament last week. Under the new law, rents regulated by the old rent law would increase over six years until they reach 5 percent of the current market value of the residence.
More than 200,000 apartments, mostly in the capital, are estimated to be rented under the old law, which governs lease contracts enacted before 1992.