Understanding Teachers' Demands Using the Right to Education Lens
A commentary on the teachers' strike
Motaz Attala – Right to Education Program Officer
Egypt's teachers have been on strike since the first days of the new academic year. Several independent teachers' unions have been calling for raising wages and improving working conditions. The Ministry of Education has started negotiations with teacher representatives with no results yet at hand. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) expresses its solidarity with the teachers' and extends its support to their just economic demands and to whichever legal means through which they can achieve those demands including the right to strike.
The EIPR holds that wage levels and other work-related conditions to which teachers are entitled must be seen within two distinct but related frameworks. The first is that of labor rights, according to which their demands, particularly around wage increases and the assertion of their right to organize freely and to strike must be considered as being parallel to those of workers in other sectors.
The second, and more critical framework, is that of the right to education. International covenants and agreements to which Egypt is a signatory hold that all citizens must be guaranteed the right to education that is acceptable, meaning education that is of satisfactory quality and that affords children its accordant social and economic benefits. Teachers are not merely a production factor in the education process but are central to the quality of education itself, thus their being sufficiently trained and adequately remunerated is a matter that not only concerns their own well-being as workers but also the rights of all those served by the education system.
The EIPR believes that the teachers' specific demand concerning the implementation of an adequate minimum wage must be engaged not as a one-dimensional matter but within a broader set of questions around competence, accountability and professional development. The issue of private tuition and the supplemental income it affords a large number of teachers should not be referred to as justification for not supporting revisions of teachers pay scales. It is to the detriment of education that parents' support for the teachers' struggle is being constrained due to this particular justification. This does not mean that increasing teacher pay will automatically reduce or eliminate private tuition, because it is a complex phenomenon that is also a result of current school curricula and examinations, the university entrance coordination [tanseeq] system, the job market and cultural aspects related to academic performance and social status. This means that instead of justifying teachers' low salaries by referring to the existence of private tuition, the wage issue must be addressed firmly alongside other issues that factor into the phenomenon.
Current discussions about teacher pay are focused on increasing the minimum wage. Sustainable, feasible solutions to the teacher pay issue will only come about if a more comprehensive goal of establishing a fair, rather than just a minimum, wage is adopted from the outset. Implicit in the call for a fair wage is a call for wage levels that afford an acceptable standard of living, particularly in light of the increasing cost of living. Teacher share similar challenges around receiving a fair wage with the majority of government employees across multiple sectors, where there remains an imperative need for the restore base pay such that it constitutes the bulk of employee salaries, thus reducing the weight of special cadres and the various incentives and other "variable pay" items. This strengthens job security and can enable a more transparent and effective means of linking pay to productivity, that is, linking the cost of labor to the value produced through it. It is for this reason that the current dialogue around teacher wages must not exclude discussion of the Teacher Academies, the Training Units, Faculties of Education, Education Monitoring units and other aspects related to teacher appraisal and professional development.
There must also be a call for transparency of the procedures by which teachers are penalized or subjected to disciplinary measures due to strike-related actions that are harmful or are illegal (such as disrupting traffic), so as not to abuse existing legislation to bully or discourage striking teachers.
Negotiations between teacher representatives must be transparent so as to be fair and not subversive of the aims of collective bargaining. This means that they must include a range of stakeholders (several teachers collectives and unions) and the ministries of Finance and Education alike and must be firmly linked with serious discussions around broader sector-wide reforms. The current budget crisis facing several economic sectors mean that the government must not be expected to address all financial demands immediately, but that this does not justify postponing addressing such demands. The Ministries of Finance and Education and the Council of Ministers and the Presidency must continue in their efforts, through dialogue with teacher representatives, to arrive at time-frames within which to progressively meet the current demands and to address the systemic and structural roots of the demands for which teachers are protesting.