Teachers’ pay impasse leaves schools empty

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President Uhuru Kenyatta says giving in to teachers’ demands would “seriously distort” public finances.
President Uhuru Kenyatta says giving in to teachers’ demands would “seriously distort” public finances.

Kenya’s government’s refusal to acquiesce to a court ruling awarding school teachers pay increases of as much as 60 percent has resulted in all state schools remaining closed since August 31st.

Kenya’s main teachers union vowed to continue its strike for higher pay as the government prepared to appeal the ruling.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has ruled out giving in to teachers’ demands, saying to do so would “seriously distort” public finances. The Kenya National Teachers Union (KNUT) said its members won’t go back to work until the government complies with last month’s Industrial Court order to raise their pay.

“We are not vacating from our position,” Secretary-General Wilson Sossion said in an interview with Nation TV, a broadcaster based in Nairobi, the capital. “You don’t comply with the order, we don’t resume duty.”

Kenya’s more than 280,000 public-school teachers earn a minimum of 23,692 shillings (£148) to as much as 140,089 shillings (£862) a month, according to the Kenyan presidency. Annual inflation in the $55.2 billion economy, East Africa’s biggest, was 5.8 percent last month.

Private institutions remained open this week after the high court suspended the government’s directive that all schools be closed. The Education Ministry had ordered primary and secondary schools shut because of the strike, while allowing high-school students who are preparing to take exams to continue their studies.

Kenya’s main opposition party, the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy, plans to hold a rally in Nairobi on Wednesday (September 23) to back the teachers’ demands. The group has also threatened to call for Kenyatta’s impeachment for defying the court order, Citizen TV, a Nairobi-based broadcaster, reported on September 17.

Kenya’s government opposes the court ruling that awarded pay increases of 50 percent to 60 percent, arguing that it usurps the constitutionally mandated role that the Teachers Service Commission and the Salaries and Remuneration Commission have to set teachers’ pay. The two bodies’ appeal against the ruling will be heard today (Tuesday).

KNUT has also asked another court to jail eight high-ranking government officials for contempt of court over their failure to pay the increases awarded last month, according to Nairobi-based Business Daily.

President Kenyatta, who addressed the nation in a televised speech, said agreeing to teachers’ wage demands would require the salaries commission to review pay across the public service. That would inflate the government wage bill to 61 percent of total revenue, compared with 52 percent now and a middle-income country average of 35 percent, he said. Kenya collected 1.1 trillion shillings (£6.8 billion) of revenue last year.

To raise additional revenue, the government would either have to raise value-added tax to 22 percent from 16 percent, borrow money, or suspend development programs.

Doing so “will raise the cost of living, slow down our economy and increase unemployment and poverty,” Kenyatta said. “None of these options is tenable.”