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Thoughts From Africa

Five weeks into their strike, the Kenyan public sector teachers are giving no indication of returning to their classrooms. Learners have been sent home, and have not been taught since the beginning of this school term.

National primary and secondary school examinations were due to begin this week, but there is no indication that teachers will be there to invigilate or mark the papers.

Months of painstaking negotiations between the unions and the employer eventually saw a settlement of increases to teachers’ salaries averaging 55%. Teachers already account for about 40% of the national wage bill. Such a hefty raise would amount to about 1% of the GDP. When the government had second thoughts, they refused to go ahead and pay the salaries, although the industrial court ruled that the government must pay the teachers increases.

The apparently huge settlement of 50% to 60% falls into perspective when it is realised that successive governments had not fully honoured a 1997 wage agreement, and that some teachers had received no raise in their salaries since then.

The government’s current and legitimate resistance to paying the teachers’ salary increase is that it had not been budgeted for this financial year.

Such a huge increase, they argue, will break the proverbial bank.

One wonders why the same fiscal prudence did not reign in 2013, when they came into office and the first thing they did was vote themselves huge increases that would have seen them the second-best paid members of parliament in the world. After public outcry, they had to back down.

Interestingly, there does not appear to be the same public outcry at the teachers’ salary increases. On the contrary, there seems to be general sympathy for the teachers’ lot, and a realisation that they do deserve more recognition from the Kenyan people.

The government is now in a situation where it will neither back down, nor be seen to bow to pressure from the unions. Employees in other state sectors are waiting on the sidelines to see how the government will handle the situation.

There is a failure in basic collective bargaining strategies. Neither side is taking the other seriously enough. And the schoolchildren are the ones suffering. They languish at home, while their counterparts whose parents can afford to pay for private tuition are going ahead with class. This is further increasing the gap between the rich and the poor in the country.

While Pope Francis’ messages both at the UN General Assembly and to Congress were widely received, I doubt whether there will be much appetite for what he needs to say to the Kenyan legislators when he visits here next month.