The Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) has stepped up their agitation in a bid for Arbitration in the fight for new wages and salaries. The single most important setback is that even if Government tries to meet their 40% demand, the massive strain it will place on state finances will definitely disadvantage other public servants who also deserve salary increases.
The representative union began to take strike action just one week before the opening of hundreds of learning institutions around the country. This may be strategic timing, but we are being reminded over and over that our children will be affected the most by it.
It is said that every ‘story’ has more than two sides. In this case it’s the teachers’ justifications, the children whose school year would either be cut short, or they may be left to their own devices in an environment that is supposed to best supervised, or they may be taught by unprepared trainees at least until the industrial action reaches a satisfactory conclusion. Whatever obtains when tomorrow morning dawns, once it is not the status quo, our children will not benefit.
Please let this not be misunderstood. The AFC fully supports the rights of every citizen that are enshrined in our Constitution, including the right to strike, but our attention is drawn to Section 38B side-labelled, “The best interest of the child”. That paragraph states: “The best interest of the child shall be the primary consideration … in all matters concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, administrative authorities or legislative bodies”.
The Constitution also states in 147 (2) that “Except with his or her own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his or her freedom to strike”.
But let’s highlight some realities that directly and indirectly affect the GTU’s demand for a 40 percent pay hike across the board bar nothing.
1. Teachers in most countries continue to lobby for more money not only because of their tremendous responsibility for molding the next generations, but because their salaries are generally low. Remember the Marjorie Stillman Douglas school shooting in Florida, USA last April, and the ripple effect that brought teachers out on strike in at least 8 states for better pay? It seems like governments everywhere have always been unable to pay teachers properly.
2. At home, this Government is stretching the dollars to meet everyone’s needs in all sections of society, while at the same time, trying to build up some sectors (e.g. local manufacturing) which are still lagging behind because for decades they did not have any support at all, not financial or infrastructural. They are only just beginning to climb out.
3. The cycle of life and living keep on turning and the traditional money spinners, e.g. sugar, timber and bauxite have not been performing well. This Government was immediately faced with the realities of Change when we took office in 2015, and there was not half enough money to do what every Guyanese needed to get done. Revenue (foreign exchange) from exported local products took a dive when we lost overseas rice markets, and the bite from the badly crippled sugar industry was sharp. It cut to the bone of our national purse, valued over $32B.
4. Even our timber market took a heavy hit in 2015 when the UK Environment Agency placed a direct ban on Guyana’s highly sought-after Greenheart wood. Every trading partner with Britain stopped buying from us as a result of that ban.
These are just a few of the scenarios that caused the Government to offer GTU $700M to cover across-the-board salary increases, and $200M for de-bunching. The GTU did not accept though, and pressed its demand for 40% across the board.
Neither President Granger nor the leader and members of the AFC want a confrontation with our teachers. The nation will not gain anything by it. It’s just that our national purse cannot afford more at this time.
However, there is a bit of silver around the clouds these days, a silver lining that will allow better allocations for Educational resources, salaries, new schools, scholarships, universities … but we are not there yet. The purse is still less than half full.
We have undertaken a massive restructuring of GuySuco, and many dedicated sugar workers have returned to work. As it relates to bauxite, international market prices for Guyana’s products – RASC, Metal and Chemical grade primary that are arguably the best quality in the world – have been extremely low since the 1990’s.
Today however, there are proposals on the table to rebuild a plant to manufacture alumina again, the primary product for aluminum utensils, tools, etc. Timber is inching back, and with a better supply and manageable prices for sawmillers and workers in the construction sector, we will be able to hike the pay of every public servant, from teachers to nurses, law enforcement and road builders.
The perennial challenge is satisfying the immediate needs of a multitude of sectors and the people who work in them all at the same time. We have to make it happen sooner rather than later, but the one thing we are sure of is that it will happen.
The AFC therefore appeals to our highly valued teachers to bear with us while we repair the damage done to our economy from 23 years of PPP rule; bear with us while we dismantle organized crime and drug trafficking, deal with trafficking in persons, the smuggling of many ounces of gold overseas every week; bear with us as we plug the holes through which the state’s revenue was bleeding.
We are making some progress, improving revenue collection in small increments that will rightfully come to you. There is absolutely no argument that our people need better pay, and that is our goal number one.
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