08/11/2022, 16.11
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Marginalised and living in extreme poverty, Lebanon’s public servants pursue strike

by Fady Noun

For trade unionist Nawal Nasr, their condition goes beyond poverty, and is one of hopelessness. About 15,000 workers have been on strike for two months, without much success. The proposal to boost an allowance favours better-paid employees. Meanwhile, private banks and the wealthiest Lebanese continue to benefit from concessions.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Hopelessness more than poverty is what 15,000 civil servants feel after being on strike for almost two months, this according to Nawal Nasr, head of the Public Administration Employees Association.

By her tone and compassion, the retired public servant has become the “outspoken voice for the dispossessed" in the civil service, breathing new life into a debate political leaders would rather forget in favour of broader issues like displaced Syrians and maritime borders.

The civil servants' strike has forced them to “stay on the ground” since almost 80 per cent of Lebanon's civil servants barely survive on salaries ranging from 1.5 to 2 million Lebanese pounds a month, that is on one to two dollars a day, the threshold of extreme poverty.

The strikers are in negotiations with the Finance Ministry, demanding that their wages be calculated on the basis of the exchange rate of the US dollar (8,000 pounds to the dollar, which means a fivefold increase), a goal they are far from reaching.

In Lebanon, civil servants have no right to organise and strike. But necessity eventually pushed the law aside.

At the end of a long period when absenteeism became the norm, civil servants decided to go on strike openly, calling for a solution to their problem, especially since the benefits provided to them by their cooperative lost all its value and the national currency, as everyone knows, lost 95 per cent of its purchasing power.

"Not only do these officials no longer have enough money to pay for travel, but they do not even have enough to eat decently, and in case of hospitalisation or important medical treatments, they have to sell their goods... or let themselves die," says Nawal Nasr, who deplores the state of real hopelessness the lower-ranking civil servants feel.

With some of its services paralysed, the government has made a minimalist offer, namely raising travel allowance to 95,000 pounds per day (starting with two work days per week), as well as something to boost “motivation”. For Nawal Nasr, these are “tricks whose worth rises according to wages, so that the highest wages get the largest benefits. While we should do the opposite.” In any event, she believes that these promises will remain unfulfilled.

After several weeks of negotiations, some civil servants accepted the offer. As of yesterday, a number of officials in the vehicle registration service went back to work.

For Nawal Nasr, “If some have apparently accepted it, it is out of desperation. They feel total hopelessness and can no longer afford even the luxury of saying no, or they live close to their place of work, so that they can save the travel allowance to improve their daily lives.”

Every day the strike is costing about 12 billion Lebanese pounds, or about US$ 400,000, according to Mustafa Bayram, labour minister in Lebanon’s caretaker government.

The strike has paralysed many sectors, including civil registry services, which are essential to obtain a visa, buy and sell vehicles, obtain import permits, register a marriage, birth, etc.

"Yet, the government has a thousand and one ways to improve its revenues and meet the needs of civil servants. But, as is well known, the collusion between the private sector and the ruling class is depriving the country of precious resources. Scandalous concessions have been granted to the wealthiest,” Nawal Nasr laments.

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