Public sector strike paralyzes finance-strapped Lebanon

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BEIRUT (AP) – Once belonging to the solid middle class, Tarek Younes felt he had contributed to society as an inspector in the Lebanese government’s Consumer Protection Agency. But the country’s economic freefall has eroded its income and civic pride.

In desperation, Younes has joined tens of thousands of government workers across the country in an indefinite strike that has been going on for six weeks.

The protest by the officials who form the backbone of the government signals a further erosion of Lebanon’s public institutions, which are already struggling to meet their most basic operating expenses.

The strike offers a bleak preview of how Lebanon could sink even lower should officials continue to delay crucial action on key financial and administrative reforms the International Monetary Fund is seeking to restore Lebanon’s comatose economy to viability.

Meanwhile, the protest continued to disrupt life in Lebanon, with even the most basic government services suspended. Court proceedings have been delayed. Identity cards, birth certificates and school reports are not issued. Air traffic controllers announced that they would end night work in August.

For the past year, public transport drivers and public school teachers have staged unsuccessful sporadic strikes and protests that they hoped would be a wake-up call for the government.

“I don’t know how we feel about economic recovery when so many people who were once middle class are now living in poverty,” Younes told The Associated Press. “We are reaching out and making compromises, but the government has to do the same and give us some of our rights.”

Many point to decades of corruption and nefarious financial management as the root cause of Lebanon’s economic downward spiral, now in its third year. They say a handful of members of Lebanon’s ruling elite created the world’s worst economic crisis since the mid-19th century, with three quarters of the population now considered poor.

The government has not increased wages for public sector workers since the country’s financial crisis began in late 2019, during which the Lebanese pound lost over 90% of its value against the dollar. In addition, the prices for food, petrol and medicines have risen sharply due to high inflation.

Younes, who heads the Association of Public Administration Employees, said public sector wages once sustained a middle-class lifestyle at about $1,300 a month. But that value has quickly fallen to the equivalent of under $70. In a country of about 6 million people, around 350,000 Lebanese work in the public sector and their salaries make up a large part of the state budget.

According to Younes, public workers are demanding a small wage increase, better health care and a flexible transportation allowance to keep up with soaring gas prices. They’d still be working with a big pay cut, but he says it would “at least help us get the necessities of a dignified life.”

With the beginning of the financial crisis, Younes, as a government inspector, tried to take action against illegal price increases and the hoarding of gasoline, wheat and medicines. He and dozens of other inspectors from the Consumer Protection Department of the Lebanese Economy Ministry have been tasked with monitoring thousands of Lebanese companies.

Lebanon’s bickering ruling parties have stalled in putting together an economic recovery plan and agreeing with the IMF on a bailout program to restructure its crippled banks and reform its shattered economy.

The country’s caretaker government under Prime Minister Najib Mikati says it cannot afford the workers’ demands but has offered temporary cash bonuses and a slightly improved transport stipend. Some staff have returned to work, but Younes said the majority still closed their doors.

“What will (the bonuses) do? Will it help you get to work, pay your electric bills, or pay your phone bills?” Younes said. “You can do something like that, but then you can’t feed your children, put them in school or give them medical care.”

Lebanon’s public sector was already weak before the crisis hit in late 2019, said Sami Zoughaib, economist at Beirut-based think tank The Policy Initiative. He described it as bloated, inefficient and marred by political patronage and corruption.

“The elite used public employment as a tool of their patronage practices to gain political support,” he said. “Some of them are ghost employees who are only there to get their checks but never show up for work.”

A cut in public sector payrolls could help make the country’s fiscal position less painful, but it may trigger backlash, damaging political allegiance and worsening Lebanon’s already alarming poverty rate. The financially strapped country has no viable social protection programs to soften the blow.

“If you lay off 20 or 30 percent of the workers, how do you make sure they survive? What kind of social protection measures do you use?” said Zoughaib.

Lebanon has stalled in adopting key structural reforms needed to reach an agreement with the IMF on a comprehensive economic recovery program and the government is instead resorting to stopgap measures to quell social tensions.

Zoughaib is not optimistic that this will change.

“They will continue to kick the can in the street without harming themselves politically, with some patchwork,” he said. “This harms both the public sector and largely the Lebanese public, which needs public institutions.”

Meanwhile, Younes anxiously shuffles papers at his desk in the consumer protection department while answering a phone call. It’s another scuffle at a bread kiosk, and it appears a Beirut bakery has illegally stockpiled subsidized wheat imports. He calls two inspectors to investigate the situation.

Younes insists his sporadic visits to the office, which is just a few floors below that of the business minister, will not mean an end to the strike. He said he was still involved in some food security-related emergencies, particularly bread.

“Because we see how much people are suffering and because we are part of the people, we undoubtedly choose to remain available with even the bare minimum on this matter,” he said.

Younes then prepares for another call with some ministers who have negotiated with the striking workers. He says their sympathy alone is no longer enough.

“Just as we have made a commitment to the public administration to continue their work, we hope that those in government will do the same,” he said. “If there is no public sector, there is no state, no entity.”

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