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No lessons learnt

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Government insists it will not raise salaries as teachers threaten continuation of 2011 strikes

Last year saw several strikes by different actors over the high cost of living. Primary and secondary school teachers staged two strikes and Makerere University lecturers also went on strike. They all wanted higher pay. Even medical workers threatened to put down their tools asking for better pay. The demands for better salaries were compounded by the double digit inflation that dominated the economy all year through.

Although teachers staged two major strikes in the same year, the government remained indifferent on issues of revising its lowly paid workers’ salaries upwards. The Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi threatened to sack all teachers who would not report for duty. The teachers ignored the premier’s warning and continued with the strike until government promised them a 30% progressive salary increment as opposed to the 100% they demanded.

An executive member of the Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU), Steven Lugesi, told The Independent that their demands for a better salary still stand and “we are waiting for government action, failure of which will result into another industrial action.” Teachers, estimated to number 167,000, are among the lowest paid civil servants in this country. The lowest paid primary school teacher earns 260,000 shillings per month while secondary school counterparts take home 450,000 shillings.

Even then, government policy on salaries of its teachers may not change so much this year. Jessica Alupo, the minister for Education and Sports, says nothing has changed about the teachers’ salaries. “Our position still remains the same,” Alupo said. Much as government acknowledges teachers are underpaid, it says it does not have the money to fund a 100 percent rise and has promised to raise their salaries by 30 percent in the next financial year, which starts in July 2012.  If government was to honour the teachers’ demands of 100% increment, it would have to fork out at least Shs 83 billion per month at the very minimum, which translates to more than 900 billion per year.

At Makerere University, Uganda’s oldest and most prestigious academic institution, lecturers and support staff have gone on strike several times. The most significant was in August last year when the university was closed for about a month after lecturers demanded harmonization of their salaries and pension fees saved in the National Insurance Corporation. It took a meeting with the president that for the lecturers to resume teaching. But as is usually the case students were the major victims. The semester timeline was extended for a month to compensate for the lost time.

However, as students prepared for end of semester exams the same lecturers threatened to strike on grounds that what they had agreed upon to postpone the September strike was not being honoured as government had promised.

In a move that could pave way for another strike at Makerere at the beginning of a new semester next February the academic staff warned last December they planned to resume a strike they suspended in September. Makerere University Academic Staff Association (Muasa) Chairperson Dr Fred Tanga Odoi told journalists that the public should bear with the lecturers because it appears the government only responds to emergencies.

Tanga said government paid Shs 5 billion of their NIC savings as agreed pending the last installment in April but other issues have not been addressed. In September lecturers accepted to go back to class after the ministry of Education appointed a committee to handle the harmonisation of top-up allowances with a report expected by October 30, a deadline that has long passed. Tanga, however, says despite having extended their deadline period twice, there has not been any communication from the committee comprised of officials from ministries of Public Service, Finance and Education.

The lecturers are demanding 100 per cent salary enhancement, want the government to take over the entire university staff wage bill like in the other four public universities and scrap off top-up allowances, which, although is an entitlement to both academic and support staff, is received by some few individuals.

“We know the public is tired of the university strikes. But a strike is a language that government listens to most. The Ministry of Education had three months to give us a report on salary harmonisation but nothing has happened,” Tanga said.

So will government this year solve Makerere’s pay issues? A committee drawn from the ministries of education, finance and public service was formed to study the possibility of harmonizing salaries of lecturers at Makerere University. While its report was expected last October nothing came out by the end of the year. But again even if the committee came up with a report, implementation of the recommendations is usally a challenge in this country. Several commissions or committees have been consitituted to study prevailing problems but rarely are their recommendations implemented even after spending taxpayers’ money on its work.

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