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Labor calls strike for May 7 to press Beirut for higher wage

'Let's face it: the minimum wage of $200 is nothing' - economist

The General Labor Confederation (GLC) on Monday called a one-day general strike in Lebanon for May 7 because of the government's refusal to raise the minimum wage from LL300,000 to LL960,000 per month.

While an economist labeled the minimum wage "atrocious," the GLC's strike call also has political overtones, as GLC chief Ghassan Ghosn organized a series of sparsely attended demonstrations last year in front of various ministries. He has long been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government, while the minimum wage has sat at LL300,000 for more than a decade.

The GLC said it wanted to set a new monthly minimum wage of LL960,000, with an additional 63.3-percent pay raise for workers in the private sector. In a statement, the confederation called on employees from the private and public sectors to participate.

Ghosn told The Daily Star on Monday he did not have difficulties negotiating with resigned Labor Minister Trad Hamadeh, a member of the March 8 opposition who has tried to continue in his former ministerial capacity despite his resignation from the Cabinet. The problem, Ghosn said, rested with Siniora's government - the GLC had reached an agreement with the Cabinet to raise the minimum wage, but Siniora changed his mind, Ghosn added.

"It seems that they don't want to give people their rights," Ghosn said on Monday. "The Labor Ministry is present, but the government is missing."

He said the government had abandoned its role as a mediator between employees and employers in bargaining over wages, as the state should provide reams of economic statistics to frame the talks over hiking wages.

"It is unprecedented that the government asks the employers and the employees to reach an agreement without government mediation," Ghosn said.

The union boss said he did not call for an immediate strike because of the logistical hurdles in organizing a nationwide labor action, as well as leaving the strike until after the Orthodox Easter holidays around April 27.

Economist Marwan Iskandar said the state needed to lift the minimum wage, but should do so only when the economy is running smoothly and not in its present, battered state after the summer 2006 war with Israel and the economic suffocation of Beirut's downtown since December 2006 caused by the tent city thrown up by protesters demanding the resignation of Siniora's government.

"Let's face it: The minimum wage of $200 is nothing," said Iskandar, managing director of consulting firm MI Associates. "I would say that a wage of less than $600 [per month] for anyone is atrocious."

Ghosn "has no other option but to be adamant," added Iskandar, who has worked with Ghosn in the National Social Security Fund.

Together with the overdue rise in the minimum wage, Lebanese unions should help to remove other obstacles hindering economic growth, such as union opposition to the government's privatization plans. The neighboring command economy of Syria can privatize its energy sector, but in Lebanon "we cannot even speak" of such a step, Iskandar said.

Hand in hand with raising the minimum wage, "it has to be an economy that is functioning normally," Iskandar added. "The Lebanese economy is not functioning normally. Parts of it are paralyzed."

Beirut 01-04-2008
Redaction
The Daily Star



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