WE WISH that we were able to welcome Mr Clayton Hall to the presidency of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) with assurance that his stewardship would be a turning point for the JTA, transforming it into a professional organisation focused largely on lifting the quality of education.
But the signal from Mr Hall is that his, like his predecessors' of recent years, is an old-fashioned, soapbox-style trade unionism, whose primary, if not sole, objective is squeezing out more pay for its members.
We hope we are wrong.
Our concern, though, stems from the tone that Mr Hall, in his first hours on the job, adopted with regard to wage and pension negotiations with the Government, and the seeming absence of reflection on how he approached the broader issues.
A few points of context are important.
First, Jamaica has a public debt of J$1.7 trillion, or over 130 per cent of GDP. Servicing that debt consumes 60 per cent of the Government's Budget.
The country faces a fiscal crisis. For instance, in the current fiscal year, if the Government meets its target for tax collection and grants (J$362.28 billion), it will, after it services the debt (J$334.7 billion) have around J$27.6 billion left. That would be sufficient to pay 18 per cent of the wages of public-sector employees, excluding back pay and J$24 billion for pensions.
So, our Government borrows to meet the rest of the wage bill and to pay for other services provided by the State. The problem is that it is increasingly difficult to borrow and the Government is under pressure to deal with its debt which, in part, brings expenditure more in line with income.
Most public-sector unions have agreed to a freeze on the wages for outstanding contracts for the period 2010-12, and are being asked to employ restraint for the period going forward. Agreement on this, plus reform requiring government workers to contribute to their pensions, is demanded by the International Monetary Fund for a pact with Jamaica.
The JTA, according to Mr Hall, has rejected the Government's wage offer, and he indicated his willingness to lead the teachers' union into a legal fight to retain the current pension arrangements.
Time for teachers to reflect
Mr Hall and the JTA would perhaps find greater sympathy for this posture if people were convinced that taxpayers received value for money on their education spend, including on teachers' salaries. But the country's education outcomes are not good.
At grade four, half the children in Jamaica's schools are neither fully literate nor numerate, and nearly a fifth are not prepared for secondary education when they enter high school. A third of the students are screened out of regional secondary education exams at the end of high school. Of those who actually write the exams, 40 per cent pass no subject. Only 20 per cent is successful in five at a single sitting.
These failures are not all the fault of teachers, but should cause a teachers' organisation to be reflective, to the point, we believe, of proposing to their employers the introduction of performance-based pay.
Even if he doesn't find agreement with our prescription, maybe Mr Hall, after the euphoria of his installation, will be more measured in his approach.
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