Wed | Nov 13, 2019

Jaevion Nelson | Are teachers so special after all?

Published:Saturday | March 17, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Students from Caribbean Maritime University arrive at Duke Street, Kingston, to assist with administrative duties at St Aloysius Primary and St George's Girls' Primary and Infant as mass teacher absences shut down schools for three days.

I can't recall seeing this level of support when the hundreds of police officers were 'sick' and asking for better pay. The sentiments being uttered suggest we are only interested in the livelihood of some people - the 'hard-working' people who we tend to shower with respect.

It's one of the reasons why I always view these wage debates for teachers with so much scepticism. The Jamaica Teachers' Association's (JTA) advocacy is very skewed. We keep pandering to their tactics, to woo our concerns and support for them and buy into the idea that teachers are suffering. Thankfully, I can agree to teachers being paid more without falling for their tactics.

It is so very funny to see that the same people who resent the idea of paying domestic workers and others who earn minimum wage are quite often the same ones who suddenly become endowed with rationale and will confidently tell you, "It can work ... . Government have money." What an interesting turn of events? Scarcity of resources miraculously becomes abundant.

Don't get me wrong. I would love to see our teachers being paid more. I agree that they do a lot, but let's not pretend teachers are the only workers in the public sector with a huge load to carry. Police, nurses, doctors, and several others also have to go beyond the call of duty. Foreign service officers (FSO) at the foreign affairs ministry, for example, are always at work. That ministry doesn't sleep and, as I understand, the FSOs do not get a handsome salary.

 

UNEQUAL WEALTH

 

As my friend Lorenzo Smith, an educator who spent several years in public schools, said, "Yes, plenty teachers dip in their pockets daily to offset lunch, buy a book or even bus fare. Yes, the teacher doubles as counsellor, etc., but isn't that symptomatic of the society in which we live, one where we have an unequal distribution of wealth and resources?"

Note, I am not encouraging that we play a kind of 'wage Olympics', but I do believe that in the grand scheme of things, teachers are some of the more privileged and 'better' paid persons in the public sector. Of course, this doesn't mean they are not deserving of and shouldn't get more. Notwithstanding, I think it would be more urgent to talk about pay for nurses, firefighters, police and, important, those who are non-unionised and working without pension and health insurance.

We need to talk about pay and not simply pay for teachers and, on occasion, pay for nurses and police. It is important that we recognise that we do not pay people properly. It's one reason we have such a large group of people called the working poor. It's really good that we are talking about pay, but perhaps it is time we look at the bigger picture if we are truly interested in there being better for people and not just some people.

It's uncanny that some of the same people who are quick to shut down arguments for higher minimum wage are so strident about more pay for teachers. The people from our communities and who work for some of us who are already (and truly) low-paid workers, who work twice or even thrice as hard for little to nothing, are hankering for our support and strident advocacy in the political groups, on social media, and on the airwaves.

You don't have to be a sensationalist to argue for more pay for teachers. Teachers suffering, going to bed hungry, can't afford life. Really? So what of others who are actually paid a very low salary then? Who - despite all the help they get from PATH, their brothers and sisters abroad, and the MP - can barely afford to send their kids to school or healthcare.

In all of this, there is another conversation that we need to have about income and expenditure with people who aren't among the working poor, but that's for another article.

If all we talk about is wages for teachers, nurses and police, there is a problem. This isn't a wage Olympics at all, but we ought to realise that those with more power - the unions like JTA - dominate the public discussion about better livelihood and shut out those at the bottom, and we all pander to it (for various reasons) in our privileged spaces because we have access and will benefit from such improvements.

- Jaevion Nelson is a human rights, economic and social justice advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com, or tweet @jaevionn.