Monday, 5 September 2011

Striking teachers have a point: Will government listen?

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

With Uganda’s inflation now at 21.4%, the highest in the last 18 years, the cost of living is increasingly becoming unmanageable to low income earners. For most people who earn as little as Shs250,000 like government primary school teachers and even those who earn triple that money every month, the increasing prices of essential commodities in the country casts even a dark shadow. Charcoal which is the main source of energy in cooking in over 90% urban homes in Uganda is becoming expensive. A sack of charcoal which was selling at Shs32,000 two months ago is now being sold at Shs70,000 in Kampala, this single item leaves the teacher’s salary lesser. In view of the hard economic environment Uganda’s primary school teachers, in July asked for a 100% pay rise. However teachers' demand for pay rise has been on since 2001 elections but has only intensified with high cost of living fueled by high fuel and food prices.

Government began by intimidating the teachers into the classroom but when teachers stood their ground and downed their tools for a week government said it could afford 50% increment not immediately but in three installments of 20% next financial year, 15% in 2013/14 budget and 15% in the 2014/2015 budget. The teachers through their Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU) rejected the offer. Leaders of the union met the president and promised to resume teaching but gave 2 weeks ultimatum for government to meet their pay rise immediately.

In fact, government kept insisting on its offer and became arrogant that those teachers who refuse to report for work will be punished or even lose their jobs. The teachers are not relenting. Inflation has eaten into the incomes of all those at the bottom of our income ladder. Food and other essential commodities prices have skyrocketed yet the incomes of teachers have remained constant. At the same time teachers have to feed, and clothe their families among other life expectations. Amidst this we expect teachers to be motivated inside the classrooms to shape the future of our children and the nation.

In spite of the hard economic times, politicians are not showing the citizens that they care. Instead President Museveni recently went ahead to increase the size of cabinet from 42 to 76 ministers. The president is surrounded with hundreds of advisors who draw a fat salary every month many of whom say they have not met the president for years. In addition, there is a growing political need of increasing the districts from 112 to 130 which has humongous cost implications. The size of parliament too has increased. So is the president’s representatives at districts who have been given a Shs 300,000 pay rise on their Shs1.5 million salary. Government has just acquired ‘Sukhoi Su-30” multirole fighter jets at a cost of Shs 1.1trillion which is a third of this year’s financial budget. This coupled with corruption in which Shs 500 billion is lost annually, according to a World Bank report, is causing agitation not only in primary school teachers but also lecturers at Makerere University which has now been closed following a disagreement on the pay rise demanded by teaching staff.

When the teachers look at this wanton government expenditure they compare with their meagre earnings. Other Ugandans have been watching the irrational government expenditure and the solutions to this growing crisis will not come from boardroom meetings with interest groups but by rationalizing government expenditure, avoiding resource waste and punishing the corrupt. Intimidating teachers with sacking directives will not be a lasting solution to the grave disparities in the pay of civil servants working for the same government. They say the government is always powerful and may succeed in forcing teachers into the classroom but this may not be sustainable in the long run as the inflation in the country keeps shooting beyond the roof. Soon we may see doctors and other lowly paid civil servants striking for a pay rise if government doesn’t give tangible solutions.

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