By Ivan Rugambwa
As news made rounds of delayed payment of Civil Servants’ Salaries, The Independent’s Ivan Rugambwa asked James Tweheyo; the general secretary of the Uganda National Teachers Union(UNATU) about negotiations with the government.
When did your members last receive salaries?
In April, some few in May, and extremely few in June; but we have many teachers who last received their salaries in December last year. Although they are few and isolated cases, they are also there. When you add up the number, these are about 120,000 teachers who have not got pay.
In 2011, teachers took industrial action, until you reached an understanding with the government about salary increment. What are the details of your understanding with government then?
We agreed that salaries of teachers be increased in a structured manner of 15% in the first year, 20% in the second year, and 15% in the third year. We also agreed that they would be giving us Shs5 billion per year, for our teachers’ SACCO for the next 5 years.
The intention was to strengthen the SACCO, such that teachers could get loans from it at low interest instead of going to banks which exploit teachers with a high interest rate. We also agreed that Capitation Grant to schools should be remitted one week before the beginning of every term.
Has government delivered on the Agreement?
Partly yes, but to a large extent no. And that is where our frustration stems from. In the first year, the government delivered and all teachers received an increment. The highest paid got an increment of 6%, those with average pay got an 8% increment, while the least paid got a 15% increment.
This second year is when we should have received the 20% increment as agreed, but there was no mention of it in the budget, while funds for the teachers’ SACCO were not released until this financial year.
The distribution of grants to schools has also remained very poor up to today. For example the term is almost ending and yet there is no grant. So, really, you realise that the government is to blame for whatever may happen.
Recently, the President, while on his Luweero tour, advised teachers to be Patient, because the government’s top priority is infrastructure. What‘s your take on that?
Yes, we agree with the President that there should be Infrastructure. But he should also agree with us that teachers should also be top priority. Teachers are central here. We are talking about roads, electricity, perfect.
But if these children are not guided by these unappreciated teachers on how to use the electricity, everything will either be unutilised or in ruin. So, teachers need to be appreciated, and we believe that the nation is, because we are.
So do you think that government’s failure to address teachers’ concerns has had any impact on the general education standards in the country?
Absolutely! Teachers are not teaching. Even those who may be at school physically, mentally and emotionally, they are very far. Some teachers go there per day, to be seen, but they are not teaching.
They are thinking about their children’s unpaid school fees and their unpaid bills. The morale is very low. And this is affecting our children. This is our concern. Why should this innocent child be punished? I think we need to be fair to this child.
So what is your next course of action?
On July 24, UNATU held a General assembly of all its members, and resolved unanimously that we continue our negotiations with the government, but up to a certain point.
We gave the government an ultimatum of 90 days, within which our concerns should be addressed convincingly. The 90 days expire on September 16 and if that date reaches before the government responds, we shall go for industrial action.
Do you really have to resort to industrial action; isn’t there a better way of resolving the standoff?
Industrial action will be the last alternative. If in the end, we are forced to go that way, I hope Ugandans will know where to cast the blame.
How strong is UNATU?
The Union is now 10 years old with 89,000 subscribing members, and another about 50,000, who have signed up but are not yet checked off. So, about 130000 will soon all be members out of the 159000 teachers.
So you think you can sustain industrial action?
Sustainability of industrial action is not in anything else but resilience and spirit. Because no one should expect to go into Industrial expecting it to be a tea party. There must be suffering. There is a cost attached, and everyone should be ready to pay the price.
But previous attempts at industrial action have not been very successful. Why do you think that this time, it will be any different?
We hope we have learnt our lessons through past experiences. And anyway, you cannot refuse to go to sleep because you had a bad dream last night. So for us, our resolve is strong, and we know that as long as we are fighting the right cause, we shall overcome.
Aren’t you afraid of being sacked; a similar threat was sent out by the government, and there are actually allegations some of your members were deleted from the payroll?
If getting off the payroll means being sacked, then actually many people were indeed sacked, because up to now, many teachers are actually not being paid. We have all the respect for government and government institutions, but government should also be willing to listen and understand the problem, and I believe, together with government, we can solve this problem.
But for a teacher whose livelihood depends on the government salary, do you expect him or her to join you in the strike, in the event that the government once again threatens participants with sacking them?
It’s very interesting when you say a teacher’s salary depends on the government job, yet for the last two months, the teacher has not been paid, and has not died. So I think this was also another hardening test, and I hope this has strengthened those who may have been harboring such fears.
Your last message to government.
I think government should learn to appreciate its people. When you look at the Ugandan Teacher, he is among the least paid professionals in this country, and I think it’s only civil, that their concerns should be listened to.
We agreed on a salary increment but in phases, knowing that an immediate wholesome increment would have strained the government. But government should also learn to honor its word. I think they are straining our patience beyond limit.