May 17, 2019 / 12:36 PM / 2 months ago

Lebanese labor union, fearing budget cuts, warns of big strikes

BEIRUT, May 17 (Reuters) - A major Lebanese labor union vowed on Friday to ramp up strikes and protests across the country if the government cuts wages or benefits as part of its 2019 draft budget.

Lebanon’s cabinet has met almost daily to complete a budget that tries to get its large deficit under control and rein in one of the heaviest public debt burdens in the world.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri says this may be the most austere budget in Lebanon’s history.

Fearing the budget will cut their wages, pensions or benefits, public sector workers including army veterans and central bank employees have protested and gone on strike.

It points to the political minefield that Lebanon’s coalition government faces. President Michel Aoun this week urged Lebanese to end protests and make sacrifices to rescue the country from economic and financial crisis.

Ministers convened on Friday afternoon to debate the budget, after some expected this would be their final meeting to agree plans for cutting the deficit.

Bechara al-Asmar, head of the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers, warned of new protests sparking “an explosion in the streets” if the government were to force tax hikes or policies that harm workers.

“These policies would be deadly,” he said.

Asmar said protesters had engaged in debate with government officials but called for more serious dialogue.

Early next week, he said unions and state workers would meet to discuss “launching a campaign of confrontation” if necessary.

Families of deceased veterans and some public administration employees protested in the capital Beirut on Friday.

After years of low economic growth, reforms - which the government has long stalled and now pledges to launch - are seen as more pressing than ever. They will have to address a bloated public sector, high debt servicing costs and hefty subsidizes on the power sector.

Business owners, employees, and experts blame the slowdown on an array of problems including regional turmoil, lousy infrastructure, government corruption, and high interest rates. (Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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