Unlike previous years, this year has not been a smooth start to the new school year for students, as hundreds of teachers throughout the country took to the streets in protest against the government’s refusal to grant them salary increases and non-salaried benefits.
It is the first time in a long time that students could not begin the new school year on time. It is the most uncomfortable feeling for tens of thousands of students across the country, especially beginners in their new environment and those entering new classes not to have teachers greet and welcome them to their classes. In the past, there was always the usual litany of complaints and problems with schools not being ready, or teachers being absent at the start of the school year. Unfortunately, this has not been the case this year due to the teachers’ strike.
Several weeks ago negotiations between the government and the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) reached an impasse, and the GTU had painstakingly warned the government that its members would strike at the beginning of the new school year. This government which has always been very slow to act and has been ill-advised on many issues did not take the warning seriously. Its refusal to heed the Union’s warnings stem from its intransigence to respect teachers and to acknowledge that teachers have been without a contract since 2015, during which time, the cost of living had increased significantly.
With less than a week before the commencement of the new school year, the government realised that the union was serious about strike action and asked the Ministry of Social Protection which is responsible for the department of Labour and Industrial Relations to intervene with conciliation. But the President of the GTU, Mark Lyte has insisted that the Union has absolutely no confidence in the Ministry of Social Protection to mediate the dispute in an impartial manner, because the Chief Labour Officer and the Ministry have, in the union’s opinion, compromised their positions by clearly being on the side of the Education ministry.
As reported in this newspaper, a majority of teachers are on strike, causing school disruptions all across the country. In some communities, parents and children have joined with teachers on the picket line to protest against the government’s inaction. In New Amsterdam, hundreds of teachers held placards prominently citing their disillusionment with the way the government has treated them over the years. Many vociferously chanted“ No retreat, no surrender” through the streets. As teachers picketed the Education Department in Linden, they have unanimously agreed to strike until their demands for an increase in salaries are met. According to Former Member of Parliament and teacher, Vanessa Kissoon, during the 2015 election campaign, the government had promised to increase the salaries of teachers significantly, but after three years in office, it has not done so as yet.
Throughout the country, the spirit of the teachers are up-beat and their unwavering support for the strike clearly shows they are in it for the long haul. Whereas, plans by the Ministry of Education to have trainee and retired teachers replaced the striking teachers seemed to have failed because the few trainee-teachers who showed-up at the schools were not pleased to substitute for the striking teachers. Others have expressed the view that it is unfair and that they are being used as pawns against the striking teachers who are fighting for progress and development in the education system.
The retired teachers whom the government attempted to recruit to replace those on strike have refused because they did not want to interfere with the strike. But even if the government’s plan had worked, many parents had decided to keep their children at home in support of the teachers. The few students who turned up for school were sent home, as most teachers were on strike. However, the government attempts to use substitute teachers is disgraceful and disrespectful to the teachers who are prepared to stand their ground.
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