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Teachers in endless wrangles with government

A row - which is simmering between the government and the teaching fraternity - could throw learning activities into disarray if urgent measures are not taken to arrest the situation.
Zachary Ochieng

The bone of contention has been the implementation of the 150 - 200 per cent salary increments awarded to teachers in 1997. The award was to be implemented in five years. However, only the first phase - bearing an increment of 35 - 45 per cent was implemented. Since then, the government has refused to implement the remaining 115 - 155 per cent, citing lack of money and a depressed economy.

But the Parliamentary Committee on Health, Labour and Social Welfare headed by Lurambi MP Dr Newton Kulundu recently concluded that the Government can afford to effect the awards. The Government, on the other hand, has adopted a can't pay, won't pay attitude. Teachers now argue that the government was not sincere in offering the awards and was only out to woo their votes, considering that 1997 was an election year.

Early this month, schools opened amid confusion as teachers had threatened to down their tools by the opening day. A nationwide strike is slated for September 23 as an Arbitration panel appointed in May to resolve the impasse did not yield the expected results. The Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) chairman Mr John Katumanga said: "We have been patient but we cannot go on like this forever", .As Africanews was about to go to press, the panel withdrew from the talks, citing frustration and lack of commitment by the government. The panel's attempt to meet the Head of Civil Service Dr Sally Kosgey proved futile.

Teachers also resent the suggestion from the Teachers' Service Commission (TSC) that they be employed on contract instead of permanent and pensionable terms. While TSC argues that this arrangement will make teachers more productive, union officials see this as an attempt to limit the number of people joining the profession.

Teachers also argue that the current arrangement whereby primary school teachers are recruited at their local district education offices is marred by bribery, nepotism and favouritism. The union officials have complained that many qualified candidates are being left out in preference of less qualified ones with good connections.

However, TSC Secretary Benjamin Sogomo denies this accusation. The secondary school teachers, argue union officials, are being recruited by School Boards of Governors, members of whose credentials are questionable. The 1997 award resulted from a tripartite agreement between the Ministry of Education, KNUT and TSC - a Department in the Education Ministry that employs teachers. The teachers' union views the failure of the implementation as a breach of contract by the government and the TSC.

But events leading to the award of hefty pay hikes suggest that the government was, no doubt, under pressure. The union - having frantically appealed to the government to review teachers' salaries, which had not been reviewed for years - called out a 12 - day strike in October 1997 to coincide with the examination period. The strike almost paralysed exams at most centres where standard Eight and Form Four candidates were sitting. President Daniel Arap Moi - not amused by the union's action - publicly called the then KNUT Secretary General Mr. Ambrose Adongo (since deceased) a fool. Said the president: "Adongo is a fool who does not mind about the welfare of Kenyan children".

But when it was becoming evident that exams would be in jeopardy, it was none other than Moi himself who called the union officials to the negotiating table. The government soon after appointed an 11 - man Teachers' Service Remuneration Committee (TSRC), headed by a former Education Minister Dr. Taitta Toweett.

It was then agreed that payment would be spread out in five years. But only a year later, the president was emphatic that the government had no money to pay teachers. Since then, the government and the union have been embroiled in an endless tussle. In early May, the teachers took the battle to parliament and even asked the clergy to pray for them.

As a union, KNUT is supposed to negotiate for a salary increment for its members every two years. But since 1997, teachers' salaries have never been reviewed.

A teacher at a leading secondary school in the Western Kenyan town of Homa-Bay,who spoke on condition of anonymity blamed the teachers' woes on the current union leadership. "As far as I'm concerned, KNUT died with Adongo."

KNUT also sees the government's registration of a parallel union - the Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (KUPPET) as an attempt to scuttle the teachers' pay demands. Teachers, however, don't seem to appreciate the hefty house allowance increments awarded to them last year. The government awarded all civil servants, including teachers, an increment in house allowance equivalent to 50 per cent of the basic pay. Currently, a new graduate teacher working in Nairobi gets US$ 154 in house allowance.

The reason advanced by the government for its failure to implement the teachers' deal has not been taken lightly by the latter. On 11th of this month, Moi reiterated that there was no money to pay teachers because the economy was in bad shape. Pleading with teachers not to go on strike, Moi insisted that they would only be paid when donors resume lending to Kenya. Said he: "For the past ten years, the country has suffered under the IMF and the World Bank , But things will be okay when lending resumes and salaries of teachers, nurses and doctors will be reviewed once things are fine"

But teachers were not amused by the president's excuse, terming it an insult to their intelligence. A teacher from the Rift Valley town of Bomet Mr Wilson Sossion said:, "We are serving Kenyan children whose parents pay taxes. Our salaries, can not therefore be pegged on donor funds"

The KNUT first National vice chairman Joseph Chirchir accuses the government of employing double standards when dealing with teachers' issues. Last year, the government awarded hefty pay hikes to members of the judiciary, while members of parliament have always awarded themselves huge perks. "It is either there is enough money for everybody or there is no money for all", said a bitter Chirchir.

A strike now seems imminent as candidates prepare for their end year exams. When teachers issued a strike notice on 30th April, 2002, the government, in reaction, appointed a Teacher's Service Remuneration Committee - similar to the one appointed in 1997. But KNUT saw this as a time-buying exercise. Terming the committee illegal, KNUT officials declined to take their positions on it.

The Labour Minister Mr Joseph Ngutu subsequently appointed an arbitration panel headed by a former Commissioner of Labour Mr John Mutungi to forestall the strike, then scheduled for June 10, 2002. However, the panel withdrew from the talks after four months of negotiations, citing lack of commitment by the government. And with Moi's insistence that there is no money, the looming strike will no doubt affect the students' preparation for these crucial exams. Worst hit would be Standard Eight and Form four candidates whose exams begin in October.

It would be interesting to see whether teachers succeed in their strike this time round. Kenya is known to have a bad history with strikes, as workers never win. The teachers went on another strike in 1998 but it soon fizzled out. And in early 90s, doctors and University lecturers went on strike to demand better pay but failed.

Early May, the government sacked more than 300 air traffic controllers who had gone on strike seeking better terms and to be de-linked from the civil service. It is likely that the government will threaten to sack the teachers and replace them with unemployed graduates as it did in 1997.

But should the government accede to the teachers' demands, the latter would smile all the way to the bank. Currently, the lowest paid teacher earns US$ 37 a month in basic pay. In the 1997 deal, the union won 50 per cent of basic pay as house allowance, 20 per cent of basic pay in medical allowance, 500 per cent increase in responsibility allowance and 30 per cent of basic pay in hardship allowance.

If the deal is implemented, the teachers' wage bill will rise from the current Ksh. 28 billion ($360 million) to Ksh. 88 billion ($ 1.13 billion). This would mean an additional strain to the already battered exchequer. Kenya's total revenue currently stands at Ksh. 200 billion ($ 2.6 billion).

The Government is also not pleased with the fact that the new salary scales would make teachers earn more than their bosses such as school inspectors and Education officers. For example, after the implementation of the first phase, school principals now earn more than senior education officers who are supposed to be their bosses.

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