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Teacher’s strike

By Stephen Kafeero

Should government fear nurses, police, army?

When Maj. Jessica Alupo, who is the minister of Education and Sports, famously failed to say which team the Uganda football team faced when it travelled the Moroccan city of Marrakesh as part of its 2014 Football World Cup qualification campaign, it appeared to cap her career of unpreparedness for the job. But that was before the teachers strike broke out on Sept.16.

Since then, it has emerged that teachers strike could not have come at a worse time; just when the minister who is in charge of diffusing it, is quickly earning herself the moniker of “Queen of gaffe and fumble”.

The teachers had on June 25 given a 90-day notice of the strike but when the strike broke, she appeared hopelessly unprepared to respond.  Maj. Alupo is, of course, only partly to blame.  The teachers are angry over the government’s refusal to honour an earlier agreement to raise their pay by 20%.

Maj. Alupo’s problem is that although she is a career soldier with a Master’s degree in Management Studies and another in international relations and diplomacy , she is also a former secondary school teacher and would be expected to know and share their plight.

Many of them were, therefore, taken by surprise when on the day the strike started she ordered all teachers to head back to class or face dismissal.

“For us in the army,” she told journalists, “an order is an order.”

Since then, teacher after teacher has said Alupo’s order was another sign of how much President Yoweri Museveni’s government “despises” teachers.

Asked how she expected the teachers to cope with what they say is unreasonably low pay, Maj. Alupo’s response was equally confounding. She said the teachers should find alternative income generating activities and not depend on one job.

“Even I don’t depend on my salary as MP and minister, I have other things,” she said.

In a sector where teacher absenteeism has been blamed for poor pupil grades and administrators constantly struggle to enforce attendance, Alupo’s solution was interpreted to show the lack of appreciation of the problem that has become the hallmark of President Museveni’s government in the public service delivery arena.

The teachers strike came exactly 18 days after lecturers at Uganda’s premium institute of higher education; Makerere University Kampala had ended theirs. At the height of the lecturers strike, Museveni had issued the same warning and vowed not to increase their pay.

“If they don’t want to teach,” Museveni had famously said, “let them go and rear goats”.    In the end, the lecturers got a pay rise but the government belief that the education sector, teachers and lecturers should take care of themselves and not bother the government appeared to have remained unchanged. It reflects a trend of the government abdicating its role to ensure quality education.

Rich schools, hungry teachers

When Museveni took power in 1986, almost all schools were government owned. Today, out of the about 20,000 primary schools in the country, about 5,200 are private owned and not given any support by the government.

The rest get Shs7000 (Approx. US3 or the price of two loaves of bread) per pupil per term under the Universal ‘free’ Primary Education system (UPE). Government funding is the same in the secondary section.

The only difference is that private schools are more than government ones at secondary level. Of the 3200 secondary schools countrywide; only 996 are “government supported”. The nomenclature is critical because, unlike primary schools that are strictly barred from asking for additional fees from parents except in very special circumstances; most secondary schools routinely ask parents to top up.

The government’s handling of the sector has resulted in a two-tier education system; one privately-run for the rich and offering relatively good quality at high cost and the other government-run for the poor and offering either poor or no standard .

The result is that primary school teachers in government schools are among the least paid, angry, and frustrated professionals in the land. These are the ones who have been at the frontlines of this strike.

Although the average monthly household income is Shs660,000 in urban areas and Shs222,000 in rural areas according to the Uganda Burueau of Statistics (UBOS), most primary school teachers in government schools earn Shs270,000 and secondary teachers Shs370,000.

Side incomes

The poverty sting is felt more by teachers in the urban areas than those in the rural. But the situation is worse when teachers are compared to other wage-earning professionals.

The UBOS figures show that most Ugandans who, like teachers, have attained at least senior secondary education earn on average Shs 1.4 million in urban areas and Shs920,000 in rural areas. Effectively, primary school teachers in urban areas earn 80% less than others with equal education.  It has not always been this way.

Cletus Nankobe, a tutor at a teacher training school started out as a Grade III teacher of primary school in 1980.

He says his first salary of Shs 865 ensured him a comfortable life and he could afford to buy beef every day if he liked and would have had no difficulty sending his children to university.  He recalls how he was transferred to Nyondo Teachers College and was given a fully furnished house.

“It is a time in my life I first used a cooker,” he says.

This teacher who has been in service for 33 years says that if one was a head of department, he or she received an allowance for that and if they were not housed by the school an allowance for that and transport was provided. None of that happens anymore. He now has a Bachelor’s degree but is unhappy with his pay.

“What we are currently paid looks so much but the value is actually very low,” he says, “Today there is something they call paying a consolidated salary which is aimed at exploiting the teacher beyond imagination.”

“I think the system is aiming at keeping the teachers in poverty by not allowing any of their children to go at least at University.”

Nankobe’s views are held by many who ruefully recall that before Museveni’s government privatised  public schools, hospitals, transport, and more. The privatization effectively placed the services beyond the reach of most low income earners, including teachers, who were once highly respected professionals.

Nankobe says a teacher working and living in Kampala now earns Shs 370,000 a month before tax; instead of living in a free furnished school house, the teacher rents a single room in a poor suburb for about 50% of the salary and the cost of electricity and water. The balance is barely enough to cover the cost of food, transport, and medical bills etc.

“As a tutor I earn Shs 550,000 but my take home is about 450,000. Even at my level, I cannot take my children to a better boarding school, except through other ventures,” says Nankobe.

The “other ventures: are a common practice now called having a “side income” where some teach in more than one school, ride boda boda motorcycles, taxis, and others invest their meager earnings in grocery kiosks, or chicken rearing.

Until now having a side income has appeared to be the perfect solution for the government that prefers teachers to fend for themselves. Although the practice has resulted in Uganda having the highest rate of teacher absenteeism in the world; at 35% according to a 2009 study by the Dutch NGO, SNV, the government has appeared determined to tolerate it.

But this teacher’s strike could prove an eye-opener to its inherent danger; that of the government losing control of the education sector.

Although both the minister and President Museveni spoke of harsh punishment for teachers who failed to return to class, their warning was shown to be a puff of hot air because it is common knowledge that teachers earn most of their income from their “other ventures” and would careless if they are dismissed.

Many have already quit voluntarily. The few that remain and clinging on if their “other venture” involves the school; e.g. they live in a school house, run a school canteen, or supply food or stationery to the school.

As a result, the standard of education has suffered as teachers, on average, teach for only three out of the five days, arrive late for work, are unprepared to teach and spend most of their time loitering around the school before leaving early.

Going on strike, therefore, is really nothing unusual for teachers who have been on a “go slow strike” for decades. The government needs to find ways to make teachers value their work. Unfortunately, the government appears to have no answers.

Return of PTA?

As the strike peaked, parents across the country appeared to grab the lead from the government.  Many like Sarah Nampijja, a parent at Kitante Primary School said they sympathise with the teachers.

“There is no need of sending children to school when they are not going to learn. The government has to pay the teachers well,” the mother of two told The independent. Her sentiments were echoed everywhere, especially in the poor rural countryside. Parents came together and negotiated pay deals with teachers in schools.

Most advocated for a return of the Parent Teacher Association which previously organized parents to pay a top up allowance for teachers.  The government says, correctly, that it has been increasing teacher’s salaries gradually for a long time. In the 2012/13 Financial Year, the government increased the salaries of primary school teachers by 15% and that of science teachers at secondary school level by 30%.

In fact, the salaries eat up 75% of the Shs1.8 trillion the government allocated to the education in the 2013/14 national budget. But the statistics obscure the fact that the teachers had demanded a 100% salary increment.

They only accepted the government offer because they were promised a 20% increment in 2013/14 FY. That would have seen the lowest paid teacher’s salary rise from the current Shs 273,000 to Shs409, 500 before taxes.

Trouble erupted when the government reneged on the promised pay rise.  But Nankobe says these selective salary increments contribute to the frustration of teachers who are left out. He says ideally the lowest ranking teacher should earn Shs 1.5million (Approx. US$580) per month.

But, he says, given the current economic stand of the country, the least paid should be pushed to at least Shs 600,000. Margaret Rwabashaija, the chairperson of the Uganda National Teachers’ Union, also recommends about the same amount; at Shs540, 000.

The trouble for the government is that salaries for civil servants are determined by predetermined tiers. That means increasing from the bottom must be cascaded upwards.

Ugandan teachers are poorly paid even by regional standards. Many flock neighbouring countries for better pay. Yet Kenyan teachers who are relatively better paid have also been striking.

Under a deal they reached, the lowest paid teacher in Kenya now earns about Shs770,000 (US$302)  while the highest paid teacher get about Shs 5,876,500 (US$2,300). That is higher than the salary of a university professor in Uganda.

The Kenya teachers also got new benefits like, ‘readers allowance’ for teachers of visually-impaired students who will earn a new rate of Ksh15,000 ( Shs437,722) per month as well as special school allowance at a flat rate of Ksh10,000(Shs291,000) for every teacher teaching in such schools.

There was also an increase in the house allowance for the lowest paid teacher from Kshs 3,000(Shs 87,000) to Kshs 8,346(243,000), medical allowance to rise from Kshs 954(Shs27,000) to Kshs 3,338(Shs 97,000) and commuter allowance to go up from Sh1,001 (Shs 29,000)to Sh4,000(Shs116,888).

Yet teachers are not the only ones poorly paid public servants in Uganda. A doctor with a masters degree is paid Shs1.2 million before tax. A medical consultant in Uganda earns about $790 (about Shs1.9m) per month while  his counterpart in Kenya gets $2,800 (about Shs7m) while the one in Tanzania gets $3,200 (about Shs8m) and the one working in Rwanda takes home $1,100 (about Shs2.7m).

The lowest paid enrolled nurse in Uganda earns a net salary of Shs 230,000. A middle level nurse in administration and one in clinical practice earns about Shs 420,000. The highest paid nurse in administration at the level of an assistant commissioner earns Shs 530,000.

Compared to Kenya, the lowest paid nurse earns about Shs 380,000 while the highest paid earns sh2.12m. A Kenyan nurse at the level of a Ugandan earning Shs 430,000 earns Shs 650,000.

If the teachers win a pay rise, these groups will all demand a rise.

Heated economy

The government has said it cannot honour its promise because its priority in the 2013/14 FY is on building infrastructure, oil and gas production, and ensuring stable energy supply.  As a result, while the budget for infrastructure surged to Shs2.4 trillion, education got just 1.8 trillion.

In an interview with The Independent, Education minister Alupo said government wants to go beyond pay and deal with the welfare of teachers holistically. She spoke of the Shs5 billion Saving and Credit Cooperative (SACCO) the government initiated for teachers in the 2013/14 budget.

In reality, government expenditure on education as a share of the budget has been declining over the last 12 years from highs of 24% in 1997/98 to 22% in 1999/2000, 21% in 2005/06 to 13.3% in 2013/14 budget.

It appears the government is anxious to avoid heating up the economy further with a salary increment that could have a domino effect on cost of living and inflation. Already in June, according to the latest Ministry of Finance information, the overall fiscal operations resulted in a slightly higher than projected budget deficit of Shs368 billion instead of the projected Shs326 billion. Although donors appear to be reconsidering their 2012 cancellation of budget support, the inflows are still a trickle.

As a result, the government appears determined to maintain a low wage bill.

That is why it has stonewalled on the 20% pay rise demand of teachers. If it adds the total demanded of Shs140 billion, the country’s wage bill will be pushed to approximately Shs 2.9 trillion, or 30% of GDP. But that would still be below the global wage threshold of 40% of GDP.  Teachers like Nankobe say the government has to put in place a minimum wage and pay a living wage.

“A living wage considers the prevailing cost of living,” he says, “However high the salary is, it is still exploitative if it is not a living wage.”

Part of the problem is that Uganda does not have a uniform salary for its civil service. Public service workers with same qualification and same rank earn different salaries and allowances.

Nankobe gives the example of the least paid police constables and non-commissioned soldiers who earn Shs 260,000 per month to show why a living wage is critical. He says army and police pay is not taxed and they have duty free shops where they get untaxed commodities. During a recent standoff with parliament over pay, the police were given freed food rations.

Margaret Rwabashaija, the chairperson of the Uganda National Teachers’ Union (UNATU) says the government needs to operationalise  the system of promotions under the Scheme of Service which would see teacher’s earn more as they upgrade their qualifications and go up the career ladder.

When the Scheme of Service was operational, a primary school teacher like Nankobe who upgraded would automatically earn more even if they stuck to primary school teaching.

Currently, even if a teacher upgrades in the primary section to a graduate level, they continue to earn as Grade III teachers in total disregard of their qualifications.   As the discussion rages on, Nankobe who has his papers ready for retirement says he cannot wait to get out.

“I am happy to be going out of the system when I am still strong to do other activities outside school,” he says, “I only pity those who are joining the system. If our children are being handled by disgruntled people, what types of products are we are going to get? We are likely to get a more disgruntled nation.”

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