Sunday, 11 May 2008

Notes of the Lebanese crisis *1

Union demands
The call by the General Labour Confederation for a one day strike over the minimum wage that triggered the crisis came after a massive build up of pressure from below.

Local union bodies and associations had been pressing for strike through a series of mass meetings across the country in recent weeks.

At the head of this strike call were the more radical unions, notably the shoe makers, carpenters, construction workers and farmers associations.

At the heart of their demands is a minimum wage of 960,000 Lebanese liras a month ($630). With rampant inflation, many ordinary people began to fear that price hikes would eat into the nestegg on which most families survive.

The government provoked widespread anger when it announced a rise the minimum wage to only 500,000, and limited to the public sector.

The GLC called for the one day strike on 7 May and were due to march through west Beirut. The government altered the route the night before, then launched their thugs at the protest as it attempted to gather.

Ghassan Ghosn, the head of the GLC, appeared on TV later to condemn the government and restate the demands over the minimum wage. He referred all "pointed questions" from the press to "the issue of hunger".

As the union has close ties with the opposition, the government thought it would be an easy target for intimidation. Ghosn, for all his faults (and he has many) and the union did not resort to violence, they where the victims.

The question of the economy and a living wage is complicated by the standoff between the opposition and the government. Crucially the opposition has accepted as fact the neo-liberal policies outlined by the “Paris agreements”— a series of economic conditions set by the west.

These policies have shifted the wealth from the working poor to the rich. All infrastructure, building and capital is being poured into the glitzy downtown areas that were acquired by Hariri, the rest of the country has been abandoned.

The government's economic policies are based on the direct relations between taxes and the national debt accrued by previous Rafic Hariri governments. As most of this debt is owed to Lebanese and Arab capital, popular taxes are in effect flowing into the pockets of the rich as a form of debt payments.

This has generated deep anger among the vast majority of Lebanon's working poor feeding a widespread malaise.

However as the opposition have accepted these terms they have distanced themselves from the popular mood. This made it easy for the government to accuse the opposition of using the unions.

The call for a minimum wage has been lost in the din of gunfire, but it remains a pressing issue of everyday life.

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