When Edith Nekesa* went to the bank to check her account last week, she discovered that all was not well. The teacher and mother of three had recently returned to work after a 24-day teachers’ strike ended with a tentative agreement with the government. But her bank statement revealed that she had received only a quarter of her monthly pay for July, leaving her without the money she needs to support her family.
The shortfall was the result of an intervention by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) which controls pay for all civil servants in the country. Following a ruling by the Industrial Court in Nairobi which declared the continued strike illegal, the SRC directed the Teachers Service Commission (TSC), which employs all teachers in Kenya, to only pay wages for the ten days in July when the teachers worked.
The move was met with a swift protest from the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) which, on 31 July, issued a seven-day notice to the government and the TSC, promising to go on a fresh strike if full July salaries were not paid. Subsequent consultations between the union and the government appear to have been more fruitful and President Uhuru Kenyatta announced last week that teachers will be paid their full July dues. However, with the money taking a while to reach accounts, many teachers like Nekesa are struggling to make ends meet.
Public primary schools have been struggling in particular since the introduction of free primary education in Kenya in 2003. The increase in the number of registered students that followed the policy was not accommodated by improvements in the country's educational infrastructure.
Many teachers in public primary schools now teach classes of more than 60 students, often without adequate facilities or even furniture. The 2012 Uwezo East Africa report found that less than a third of pupils in the region have basic literacy and numeracy skills, with pupils in private schools significantly outperforming those in government schools.
Compounding this, many teachers feel underpaid, and the 200,000-strong teachers strike in July was the latest in a series of protests against low salaries. In September last year, teachers calling for wage and allowance increases due to the rising cost of living went on a similar strike that crippled the education sector and led to the rescheduling of national examinations for both primary and secondary schools.
As with the most recent strike, the teachers’ demands go back to 1997, when the government of Daniel arap Moi agreed to increase the salaries and allowances of teachers but delayed delivering these payments due to the country’s then poor economic circumstances.
The terms of this original promise were generous, with basic salaries for teachers set to increase by between 105% and 200% dependent on rank. In addition, numerous concessions were to be added to their basic pay, including a 50% housing allowance, a 20% medical allowance and an automatic 10% commuter allowance.
Under the same agreement, principals and school heads, along with their deputies and heads of department were to receive a 50%, 40% or 30% pay rise, respectively, as a responsibility allowance.
Not surprisingly, the recent deal made with the government has fallen short of matching these same promises, but was nevertheless accepted by the Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (KUPPET) in a move that distanced them from the rival union KNUT.
Under this agreement, teachers will get an aggregate increase in salary and allowances amounting to KSh16.2 billion ($184.5 million) over the next two years. And several of the allowances demanded will be put on a par with those of other civil servants.
Many teachers will be pleased at the arrangement, but the government has also ensured that it received some concessions it wanted from the partial appeasement.
First, the government ensured that part of the agreement required teachers to make up for lost time. That is to say, the government adjusted the academic calendar to make sure students in public schools do not fall behind their counterparts in private schools who were unaffected by the strike. Schools will now stay open for an extra week at the end of the next two terms.
Second, the bargain secures the unions’ full support in the implementation of the controversial ‘laptop project’ – a campaign promise made by President Kenyatta and the Jubilee Coalition during the recent election to provide a laptop to every child joining the first year of primary school.
Critics, including KNUT Chairman Wilson Sossion, had accused the government of misplacing its priorities, saying the project is a misuse of money when many schools lack classrooms and properly paid teaching staff. But now, Sossion and his fellow teachers will be required to support the project.
Debates around these issues are likely to continue in the coming years, but in the shorter term, it is payment of the July salaries that is most pressing. On this agreement, Sossion seemed confident after talks with Kenyatta. “The July pay was a directive of the president and we have confidence that it will be fully implemented”, he told Think Africa Press. “Teachers should remain patient as the issue is sorted out”.
However, for Edith Nekesa and the many others in her position, patience comes at a cost. Many teachers have taken out loans and will not be able to meet their repayments until the situation is resolved. And without a full wage it will be impossible for the single mother to pay all her bills and feed her family. Her only good fortune is that the school holidays are about to start and she can send her children to Kakamega to spend the month with her parents.
“With the cost of living so high they are better off spending the holidays in the village”, she says. But she knows that when her children return to the city for the start of the new school term in the autumn, they will be relying upon the fragile deal between the government and the teachers staying intact.
As Albert Mwangi, a Nairobi resident, explains, it is crucial that teachers are paid decent wages. “If a teacher is not able to feed his or her family”, he says, “they will not be able to come to class and give quality education to the students”. And improving education in Kenya is in all Kenyans’ interests.
*names have been changed
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