Robert Miller | After the sick-out, what's next?
The teaching profession has always been the backbone of our society. Teachers are vital in our thrust to move this country into prosperity. Amid reports of increased agitation by teachers over salary negotiations, Audley Shaw, minister of finance and the public service, said on March 11:
"The Government of Jamaica recognises and appreciates the sacrifices of all public-sector workers. We thank them and applaud their continued contribution and dedication to the development of our country. The Government is also cognisant of the interest of the teachers and agrees that public servants, including teachers, deserve more."
Teachers, however, decided they would send a strong signal to the Government last week by putting a halt on the school system for approximately three days, amid final preparations for the Grade Six Assessment Test (GSAT) and Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations. To be fair, I must say that not all teachers took industrial action, some teachers decided to go to work to continue preparing their students for the upcoming exams. These few publicly stated that they were in solidarity with the teachers who took industrial action, but that the interest of their students was also important.
Press releases from the National Secondary Students' Council and a proactive Ministry of Education, Youth and Information assured the public that contingency measures would be implemented and students would be accommodated.
In the two years of this Andrew Holness administration, the Government has always sought to cater to the needs of the public servants while ensuring that the overall interest of the Jamaican people and our path to a stable and growing economy are maintained.
This stance and practice are in stark contrast to the notions expressed by Shadow Spokesperson of Social Security Horace Dalley in the Lower House and Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips. Mr Dalley should recall his January 2013 statement cautioning trade unions against trying to "stick up" a broke government.
During 2015 negotiations with civil servants, then Finance Minister Dr Phillips, in an address to the nation, stated, "All the country can afford at this time is a 3.5 per cent increase per annum over two years." This offer was accepted by unions without a press release issued and without a counter-offer.
Dr Phillips lamented that "it will be a long time before the country is in a position to give major increases to public-service workers". Audley Shaw, as opposition spokesperson on finance at the time, chided the Government, putting forward the notion that they could've done far better in their offer, and rightly so. Today, as minister of finance, he has offered public servants more than what the previous People's National Party (PNP) administration put on the table. This has been met with protests, press releases issued to the media rejecting the offer, and the usual pundits on radio talk shows lambasting the Government.
This administration is not against paying more; however, it must be done within the fiscal discipline we have maintained.
The Government has managed to improve the standard of living for teachers by increasing their budget allocation to schools with more autonomy. Inflation is at its lowest in years, the Government has made good on its $1.5-million tax break that benefited all, and last but not least the 'no new taxes' in this financial year.
The Government is of the view, as I do, that public servants, especially teachers, deserve more than what is being placed on the table. However, it's the best that the administration can do at this time.
I would like to ask now that we have a strike, or sick-out if you must, what's next? Are we satisfied with our gains? At the end of the day who suffers? Let us not gamble with our children's education. We have been privileged to obtain our education; let us not deprive them of theirs. Our country is depending on their bright minds to ensure that we have a better country tomorrow.
Let us all come together and strategise on a different way forward in our negotiations, without affecting our students, because when we strike, the Government and teachers are not affected; it is our students and the country at large who are.
- Robert Delano Miller is an adviser to the minister of education, youth and information and also a lecturer at Northern Caribbean University Eastern Region. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.