By Vijaya Kumar –
The teachers’ strike is now a month old and the government’s strategy appears to play for time by holding out a promise of a solution in next year’s budget while using repression to obstruct activists and frighten teachers involved in the strike.
The teachers’ strike has had the effect of disrupting whatever little education that was being delivered through an imperfect online approach abounding with deficiencies. Parents who are disturbed by the impact it is having on their children’s education are faced with the question as to whether the demands and actions of teachers are just, especially during the economic crisis the country is facing today.
Before we can decide whether their demands are justified, we should be aware of how much teachers are paid today? The salary scales of a teacher with the lowest qualification for teaching, a GCE (A/L) starts at Rs. 27,740 monthly which with Rs 7,800 allowances (including Rs 2,500 paid from July 2019) totals Rs 35, 540. After 15 years of service he/she reaches the maximum of Rs. 33,090 (Rs 40,890 with allowances). A graduate teacher starts at Rs. 34,290 (Rs. 42,090 with allowances) which becomes Rs, 45,050 (Rs. 52,850 with allowances) after 15 years of service. These salaries were fixed 5 years ago and in that period the CCPI cost-of-living index rose 30% from 110.0 to 143.1. The allowance of Rs 2,500 paid in July 2019 compensated teachers by between 5 and 7.5 percent of their salaries. After the Rs. 2,500 was paid in 2019, the CCPI has risen by 10%. These salaries are no doubt unsatisfactory on the basis of their educational levels being slightly above the salaries of the lowest paid category in the country, the plantation workers who receive Rs. 1000 per day.
Even the government realises that teachers deserve a better deal. The Daily News reported that a Cabinet memorandum to provide better salaries to teachers was to be submitted in February 2020 by the then Education Minister Dullas Alahapperuma. Present Education Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris confirmed in parliament in November 2020 that Cabinet approval had been granted on March 5 and the salary anomaly of principals and teachers would be rectified, indicating further that the treasury had agreed to provide funds for an interim allowance to be paid until the National Salaries Commission finalised teacher pay scales. He stressed the ‘big effort’ he had to make to be able to get the allowance approved while appreciating teacher co-operation in conducting the GCE (A/L) Level and Year Five Scholarship Examinations and concluded by saying that “steps will be taken to place principals and teachers at a dignified salary scale by rectifying their salary anomalies.” However the interim allowance has still not seen the light of day.
Many government ministers have commented that the demand by government teachers is just but that this was not the time to make the request or to strike given the Covid-19 situation while re-assuring teachers that their problems will be dealt with in the nest budget. So, as far as teachers’ salaries are concerned, it has always been a case of jam tomorrow, never today. It is the frustration of not seeing promises fulfilled and the realization that talks and delays will not solve their immediate problems that made them resort to and continue striking – something teachers with their concern and empathy for students very rarely do. And they cannot be blamed for taking the opportunity to press their demands.at a time when government is perceived as having difficulties and becoming unpopular.
The argument that teachers need to delay their actions because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the financial crisis faced by the government appears to be valid. But when such arguments are promoted by Ministers who had no qualms in authorising the now on, now off, Rs. 3.7 billion import of hundreds of SUVs for parliamentarians and approving funding for massive unsolicited projects promoted by their colleagues, they are indeed questionable. The minimum qualification to enter the teacher service is the GCE (A/L), but Parliamentarians, many of whom lack a GCE (O/L) and are actively preventing the release of data on their educational qualifications, are estimated to be paid more than Rs. 250,000 per month. Apart from the Rs 80,000 allowance and sittings fee, they receive many allowances or should they be called grants which they do not have to account for like Rs 50,000 for phone expenses, Rs 100,000 to maintain an office and a distance based fuel allowance with a minimum of Rs 30,000 for Colombo district MPs.
The inability to pay salary increases seems to apply only for teachers as CEB employees obtained a 25% increase in pay a few months ago and those in the Water Board even more. And where an increase in salary is not feasible, there seems to be another strategy. Since August 2019 after Genral Shavendra Silva took over as Army Commander over 2,500 officers (a third of the cadre) and 55,000 other ranks (more than half the cadre) have been given promotions to the next higher rank to apparently commemorate various important Army anniversaries. Similarly a quarter of Air Force officers and a fifth of the airmen were given similar promotions on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Air Force earlier this year. Anybody who has worked in Government will know how the Treasury will pounce on institutions and pooh-pooh any efforts to give promotions on such basis. The Treasury seems to have a different set of rules for the armed forces.
It is therefore obvious that all these excuses are part of a strategy to fob off the teachers once again and that any easing of their struggle because of the unprecedented oppression of strikers using archaic quarantine laws by government will mean teachers will be stuck with their low pay and salary anomalies.
It is in the interests of the future of education in the country and of students in government schools that the Government should make arrangements to immediately pay the promised interim allowance for which funding is available according to Minister Peiris and work towards ensuring that teachers’ problems are settled in the next budget. The lack of urgency in solving this problem makes one wonder how many children of government (or even opposition) politicians are studying in government schools.
*Dr. Vijaya Kumar, a former Dean of the Faculty of Science, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Peradeniya