GUINEA-BISSAU: Teachers strike over non-pay

BISSAU (IRIN) -- Intermittent teacher strikes that have disrupted the school year since October 2008 are on again as most of the country’s teachers went on strike on 19 March over salary arrears, according to the Union of Teachers.

The strike was initially planned to last 48 hours and end on 20 March but union spokesperson Mario Lima Ingualdé told reporters on 19 March: “We will continue until 24, 25, and 26 March unless the government agrees to our demands.”

Teachers are asking for up to one year of unpaid salary as well as education sector reform, including improved school equipment, better teacher training and increases in the education budget – currently six percent of the national budget, according to the teachers’ union, SINAPROF.

Education has not been a priority for Guinea-Bissau governments and the budget does not always cover salaries, secondary school teacher Infamara Conté told IRIN.

In the meantime it is children who suffer, said head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Guinea-Bissau Silvia Luciani. “Children should not pay the price of the State’s fragility…The children of Guinea Bissau have already lost over four months of school this year, due repeated teachers' strikes and political instability.”

Teacher strikes have plagued Guinea-Bissau’s education system for years, even since the end of the civil war a decade ago. Education officials have been forced to declare entire school years null and void because of continuous strikes over conditions and pay.

Coming up short Teacher Conté told IRIN no teachers in Guinea-Bissau have been paid for the past five months.

He said he has been teaching for many years and that half of his monthly salary of US$115 goes toward rent. “My salary, when I receive it, does not even last for two weeks,” Conté told IRIN. “I am forced to stay in education because I have no other options for my life.'

Most teachers start at $50 a month, which gradually increases to $75, said Conté.

The average monthly salary of employed persons in Guinea-Bissau in 2007 was less than $17, according to World Bank.

SINAPROF’s Ingualdé told reporters that the French government and the World Bank have paid the government to settle wage arrears in the education sector, but the money has not yet been processed to cover teacher salaries.

The French government gave the Guinea-Bissau government $313,464 in late 2008 to cover teachers’ salary arrears.

Malam Djassy, chairman of the government’s education commission, told IRIN this money will soon be disbursed for teacher pay. “We are coming to an agreement with teachers to lift the strike,” he told IRIN.

The start of the 2008-09 academic year, initially intended to start last October, was delayed until January 2009 because of teacher strikes.

Most teachers in the country are untrained and many of them never finished primary school, according to UNICEF.

“The fact that there are many urgent problems to resolve in Guinea-Bissau should not put education in second place. This country cannot afford another generation whose majority cannot write, read or count,” UNICEF’s Luciani said.

“People’s limited access to education is one of the factors behind continued instability in the country. The children of Guinea Bissau cannot wait for the solution of all political problems in the country... They need to go back to school tomorrow.'