Transport Unions in Lebanon Gear Up for Thursday's Gasoline Strike

Transport Unions will hold a nationwide strike on May 19 demanding the government scrap taxes and fees on fuel prices and the creation of a price cap for rising gasoline prices, a statement by public transportation unions said Monday.

BEIRUT: Transport Unions will hold a nationwide strike on May 19 demanding the government scrap taxes and fees on fuel prices and the creation of a price cap for rising gasoline prices, a statement by public transportation unions said Monday.

The strike will begin at 6 a.m. and end at 12 p.m. in Beirut, Bekaa, Tripoli and the southern towns of Sidon, Tyre and Nabatieh.

A rally will also take place at 10 a.m. toward Riad al-Solh square.

Fuel prices have been on the rise in the past two months with the price of gasoline graded at 98 octane reaching LL37,500 per 20 liters last Wednesday, while gasoline graded at 95 octane was priced at LL36,800 per 20 liters.

Caretaker Finance Minister Raya al-Hasan proposed last week granting each taxi and bus driver in Lebanon $5 cash each day to help them cope with the surge in gasoline prices.

However, caretaker Energy and Water Minister Jibran Bassil wants the caretaker Cabinet to cut the prices of 20 liters of gasoline by another LL4,800 for each of the two grades.

Trade unions have criticized both proposals as temporary and have repeatedly called for a ceiling to be placed on the prices of gasoline and fuel oil to help low-income families.

Despite the strike, trade union officials said they were open to negotiations and dialogue, asking caretaker Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi to rejoin talks between Hasan and trade unions.

Aridi had mediated talks between Hasan and public transportation unions earlier this month, but had withdrawn last week because officials were not cooperating.

Last week, Bassil held off from issuing the weekly fuel prices update in an attempt to pressure the caretaker Cabinet to solve the problem of rising fuel prices.

After announcing that strikes would be held, Confederation of Land Transport and Taxi drivers chief Abdel-Amir Najda said May 19 would mark the first major event in a campaign against gasoline policy in Lebanon.

The status quo is no longer tolerable, said Najda.

General Labor Confederation chief Ghassan Ghosn, considered a key figure in the trade union landscape, voiced support for the strikes, reiterating demands that gasoline policy undergo a complete overhaul.

In addition to demanding a scrapping of gasoline taxes, which currently stand at LL6,500 per 20 liters, taxi drivers unions are calling for a transparent fuel pricing system, the creation of a coherent oil policy, and a partial nationalization of the oil industry.

Zuheir Berro, head of the consumer watchdog group Consumers Lebanon, agrees that more intensive changes should be made to the gasoline sector than those being proposed by government figureheads.

"If there's no government intervention [in the gasoline sector] then the traders will dominate," he said, adding that he was skeptical about the legitimacy of gasoline price-setting methods, believing importers to yield too much influence over relevant ministries.

Berro also argues that the government's current caretaker status has lent traders more weight in governmental decisions, since a caretaker government is less able to combat transgressions than the incoming government would be. "Without a government, it's easy for businesses to operate unfettered," said Berro.

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