Zim teachers call for strike

by Patricia Mpofu

HARARE - Zimbabwe's teachers on Friday called for a nationwide strike starting next Tuesday until government meets their demands for improved salaries and allowances, throwing into disarray efforts by the country's power-sharing government to revive public education.

Tendai Chikowore - president of the largest of two unions representing teachers in the country, the Zimbabwe Teachers Association (ZIMTA) - told journalists at a press conference in Harare that teachers would withdraw their labour when schools open for the third term on September 2.

"Having observed that since March 2009, lots of promises to address the educators' grievances, salaries and allowances by the employer have proven to be a non-event and having exhaustively consulted, lobbied and negotiated with principals involved on the remuneration issues, educators have, as a last resort, resolved to proceed to withdraw labour with effect from 2nd of September 2009 until their demands are met," said Chikowore.

No comment could be obtained from the other teachers' union - the 16 000-member Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) whose members have been boycotting classes on Fridays since July also in protest against poor working conditions.

The ZIMTA president said teachers were demanding that salaries and allowances be adjusted progressively towards the poverty datum line - last month quoted at US$502 - by December 2009.

Currently teachers take home US$155 a month after government hiked salaries for all civil servants last month from the US$100 allowance they were getting since formation of the country's coalition government in February.

ZIMTA has also asked government to relax requirements for teachers returning to the service after they had left because of a decade-long political and economic crisis in the country. The union wants all outstanding applications for such educators to be expeditiously processed and their salaries paid within 30 days of reinstatement.

Chikowore said ZIMTA's other demand was that parents be relieved of the burden of paying incentives to teachers.

"Educators should not continue to live in abject poverty and perpetual debt caused by the burgeoning unpaid domestic utility bills and unaffordable costs of educating their own children even at institutions they teach," she said.

"The state has an obligation to safeguard the educators' right to adequate remuneration that guarantees a decent life."

All ZIMTA members have been alerted of the impending strike, she said.

Education Minister David Coltart could not immediately comment on the matter as he was said to be locked up in meetings. Coltart has in the past met teachers' union leaders to urge them to be patient as the government tries to mobilise resources from donors to improve salaries and working conditions.

Zimbabwe's power-sharing government between Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe has promised to revive the economy and economy and restore basic services such as health and education that had virtually collapsed after years of recession.

While schools and hospitals have reopened, the failure by the unity government - which says it requires a total US$10 billion to get Zimbabwe on its feet again - to convince rich Western nations to release grants and soft loans has hampered its ability to sustain the recovery effort.

Public doctors only called off a two-week strike for more pay this week, responding to a call by Tsvangirai to return to work while the government scrounges around for funds to meet their demands.

Western governments insist they will not provide support until they see evidence President Robert Mugabe is committed to genuinely sharing power with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.