Tue | Mar 21, 2023

Imani Tafari-Ama | Teachers, wages and the apprenticeship declaration

Published:Sunday | March 12, 2023 | 12:23 AM
Teachers Taneka Mckoy-Phipps (left) Shereece Bryan and Susan Campbell (right at the back) stand across from the Ministry of Finance on Wednesday March 8 to protest the wages offer.
Teachers Taneka Mckoy-Phipps (left) Shereece Bryan and Susan Campbell (right at the back) stand across from the Ministry of Finance on Wednesday March 8 to protest the wages offer.

After clumsy initial communications between the Government and the Jamaica Teachers’ Association, (JTA), the parties have come to a stalemate. The minister of finance threw down the gauntlet: $12 billion, take it or leave it. Sixty per cent of the teacher delegates voted to reject the wage offer, which amounts to a twenty per cent increase over current pay rates, after tax, over three years. This is a tacit win for the Government because it shows that there is a split among rank-and-file teachers. This vacillation could work in the Government’s favour. Though restive, the majority of JTA members are hungry for the increase.

This call and response will continue until the more resilient party wins. And there are rumblings that it could lead to industrial action in the sector. At the time of writing, parents were being alerted that the uncertainty could result in disruptions in the classroom. Graduate teachers, the highest paid, net just under $180,000 monthly, which leaves them hard-pressed to manage to survive in Jamaica’s harsh economic conditions.

The current confrontational wage negotiations made me think of the Apprenticeship Declaration, which was introduced at the end of enslavement. The ultimatum wording used in this document created the conditions for the kind of passive-aggressiveness entailed in the current wage increase proposals and responses. Teachers, unions, and state representatives are respectively pivoting around the notion of the value to be attributed to the teachers’ labour. Such considerations inevitably reveal lingering colonial values that influence the ways that we communicate, the education system, career choices, labour systems, punishment mechanisms - in a word, governance architecture.


Have you ever wondered why we have a 40-hour work week? And why it starts and ends at the same time? When you read the Apprenticeship Declaration, you understand the rootedness of our approach to employment in the plantation system. To this day, at The University of the West Indies, Mona, you can still hear the automatic blowing of the “cawchie” time signals, which summon the workers to observe the labour schedule. This poignant reminder of the era of enslaved labour is background noise - if noticed at all. It does not pique the curiosity even of students of sociology, or history or literatures or communication, who are trained in methods of symbolic interactionism. That is how norms are entrenched.

The 40-hour schedule was introduced in 1835 as a component of the Apprenticeship Declaration proclaimed by Sligo, governor of Jamaica, representing the King of England. It was authored by Richard Robert Madden in London. This document, which was not a part of my childhood history lessons, stated:

You will, on the first of August next, no longer be slaves but from that day, you will be Apprenticed to your former owners for a few years in order to fit you for freedom … You will only be required to work four and a half days each week; the remaining day and a half in each week will be your own time and you may employ it for your own benefit. Bear in mind that everyone is obliged to work – some work with their hands, others with their heads, but no one can be considered respectable without some employment. Your lot is to work with your hands … .

The long title of this document explained the contradictory intentions of the colonial model: First Proclamation of his Excellency the Governor to the Negroes’ in A Twelvemonth’s Residence in the West Indies, During the Transition from Slavery to pprenticeship, with Incidental Notices of the State of Society, Prospects, and Natural Resources of Jamaica and Other Islands. I am not sure at what point the half-day was added to increase the weekly hours from 36 to 40.

The Apprenticeship template has been reproduced as a racist and class and gender-specific model of production and social engineering. The enforcement of this model through subject streaming, has had a devastating impact on the psychosocial and socio-economic competence of students who have to confront this kind of prejudice. For some, such stereotyping had the opposite effect - motivating them to succeed against the odds. However, the detrimental impact of intentional subtraction of human capital from the body politic is impatient of debate.


Children are now programmed into this modality with the classist categories of “lawyer-doctor-Indian chief” prevailing as the essence of career-choice respectability. In addition to improving salaries, are teachers also sufficiently outfitted to catalyse the kind of transformational competence students require for a fast-changing world? Is their pay package tagged to performance? Is the spotlight placed on salaries always matched by the burnished and glowing outcomes of student success?

Notions of respectability, as outlined by the Apprenticeship Declaration, are mirrored in the slanting of certain subjects to children from specific social groups. The fact that the education system leaves intact notions like the respectability of certain kinds of jobs over others, suggests that educators need to do more to unravel the stitching of the colonial paradigm.

The elephant in the room is that Rastafari and reggae musicians are among the kinds of workers who are disqualified from the classical categorisation of respectability. Their career choices to work outside the formal sector and in the creative industries are not traditionally regarded as worth the commensurate expenditure on education. Most parents would not brag that their child wants to be self-employed as a reggae artist. This opposition endures despite the stepladder value chain offered by this employment space.

For decades, many artists and musicians have also complained of lack of fulsome backing from the Government for their ambassadorial contributions at home and abroad. The mindset prevails that creative workers are not normal and what they do is not respectable to “polite society”.

Yet artistes, who define their own freedom in their approach to work, demonstrate that forked-tongue friends, (s aGovernor Sligo styled himself), bearing gifts of apprenticeship, do not have a patent on proven methods of accruing profits. They have also gained a bonus from embracing the risk of critical thinking and problem solving. This also demonstrates their contribution of cultural capital in the conjugation of Jamaica’s international identity.

The educators should exercise the emotional intelligence to craft a win-win outcome to the wage talks. As their slogan chants, “if we can’t teach them, we can’t lead them!”

Imani Tafari-Ama, PhD, is a Pan-African advocate and gender and development specialist. Send feedback to i.tafariama@gmail.com.