Demanding the pound of flesh | Sunday Observer

Demanding the pound of flesh

17 October, 2021

As teachers continue their strike for nearly three consecutive months – almost a 100 days as of today –students still await answers to questions they hardly thought of asking in a classroom, the moral of the story of teachers who would leave their children high and dry for months.

The Teachers’ Day that passed without much ado, needed a new definition and purpose this time as students struggle to fathom the new realities. For almost two years, students have not been inside a classroom, nor associated their friends in a healthy learning environment. To top it off, they lost their only connectionwith the school with the launch of the teachers’ strike and the halt of online classes.

Working on the sly

Although almost 250,000 teachers have officially suspended their work, many had been working on the sly conducting tuition classes and obtaining fees from students who have nothing else but oblige in this dire circumstances. They fight for their rights while continuing to enjoy the government salary with an extra earning on the side. A gamut of questions has arisen in the past few months of the values some teachers could actually be imparting in classrooms and how they can face their students once all this is over.

On the other hand, teachers have been going through some of the worst periods in recent history, especially with the lockdowns resulting from Covid-19. In no time at all, teachers were expected to move on to an online platform without any training whatsoever, often getting the help of their children to navigate the world of technology.

Many of the teachers did not have the proper devices and managed with whatever resources they had at home, spending their own money. All this with the meagre salaries they received despite the service they provided over the years. It goes without saying that teachers need to be better recognised for the job they do, although the question remains whether they have chosen the right time to fight for rights.

A long struggle

The government has acknowledged that this had been a struggle of over two decades. Despite their dedication and the huge responsibility they’ve undertaken in educating young generations, teachers have so far received meagre salaries and privileges unlike other government employees. They are one of the lowest paid government employees. Therefore, as recognition of their service and their valid struggles, the government gave several pledges to correct their salary anomalies.

According to Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the government has already pledged to implement salary increases in stages and grant an allowance of Rs. 5,000 to all teachers and principals.

The government has also agreed to make this a closed service, enabling teachers and principals to be treated separately from the rest of the public service when resolving salary anomalies, wages, transfers, etc.

In a recent meeting with Trade Union representatives, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa offered to pay one-third of the salary demands in two stages i.e. in January 2022 and in 2023. It was reported that the union representatives did not oppose this during the meeting and some have even hoped to call an end to the strike.

However, internal pressures could have let to the decision taken after union deliberations to continue with the strike. With schools set to reopen stage by stage from October 21, the unions still urge for the entire ‘pound of flesh’ before that, making this one of the longest strikes in the recent past.

“We will continue trade union action and if our demands are not met by October 21, we will consider whether we are starting work when schools reopen,” said Ceylon Teachers’ Union Secretary Joseph Stalin.

Identity cards

The government, on the other hand, continues with its scheduled programmes for the year that aim to provide more benefits to teachers and principals. Marking Teachers Day, the Education Ministry for the first time, issued identity cards for teachers and principals under the patronage of Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena at the Education Ministry, Isurupaya on October 6.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa sent congratulatory messages on the occasion. State Ministers Susil Premajayantha, Vijitha Berugoda, and Sita Arambepola, MP Yadamini Gunawardena, Ministry Secretary Dr. Kapila Perera and others participated.

“We take this opportunity to salute our teachers for being the strength of the future. They are the heart of the revival of education. In the President’s Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour, teachers receive centre stage in education and pledges to give continuous respect for their contribution,” said the Education Minister.

The Minister added that the government will successfully complete the programs set forth in the beginning amid the challenges in managing a global pandemic.

“Our children are equipped with the right skills and knowledge and become good citizens because of the teachers’ dedication. They are a part of society that should be revered. Therefore, we are dedicated to ensure their rights and safety,” the minister said.

The Education Minister added that the government has taken up the task of designing a national policy to enhance the education sector from schooling level to university.

He said the government is committed to carry out the responsibilities towards the teachers and added that the teachers in turn need to understand their role and carry out their responsibilities towards the 43 million children in this country.