Africa

Can Kenya afford teachers' pay rise?

Pupils of the St. Paul Primary School in Nairobi sit in an empty classroom on January 26, 2009, after the school closed, entering its second week in a dispute about teacher's pay. Image copyright AFP
Image caption The teachers have been boycotting classes to express their anger

Kenya's government finds itself in a tricky position after the Supreme Court ordered it to give teachers a pay rise of at least 50%, which it described as unaffordable.

For nearly 50 years, the government has been locked in legal battles with the teachers' unions over salaries.

However, despite what many thought would be the end of the dispute, it is far from over.

The teachers' pay body had argued that it cannot afford the increase while the teachers unions are adamant.

Learning is yet to begin for the third and final term of school - an important one because students finishing primary and secondary school will sit their national examinations in a couple of weeks.

Kenyan teachers have been demanding better pay since before independence.

At times they have been successful, for instance, in 1966 they convinced the government to create one employer for all teachers, the Teachers Service Commission.

The origins of this strike goes back to 1997 - learning was paralysed across the country for nearly two weeks as teachers demanded a 150-200% pay rise.

A general election was just weeks away, so the government had no option - it bowed to the pressure because the stakes were high.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The latest strike comes as pupils prepare for their final examinations

The increment was to be implemented in phases over the course of five years.

But 18 years later, it is yet to be fully honoured.

Over the years, the government has argued that it cannot afford the proposed rates.

Finance Minister Henry Rotich recently said: "This financial year, we have not provided for resources for any pay hike."

But the bigger concern for the government is that raising teachers' salaries will lead to demands from other civil servants who are "watching and waiting."

"It will raise the same wage bill we've been arguing is already high - 55% of our expenditure goes to pay salaries," said Mr Rotich.

Agreements rarely honoured

The lowest paid teacher earns a basic salary of about $160 (£110) a month, and the highest, a chief principal, takes home $1,090 (£800) in basic pay.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Teachers are poorly paid in many African countries

The court award to teachers will cost the country about $170m (£112m).

The treasury has insisted it cannot raise the amount. It said the only option was to raise taxes - something that the public is expected to reject.

The government allocated $1.8bn (£1.2bn) for teachers' salaries this financial year, which is nearly 40% of the public wage bill and 5.6% of the entire budget.

The education sector normally receives the highest allocation of funds - about a third of the national budget.

Neither the unions, nor the government, appear ready to back down.

The government has previously ended workers' strikes using a combination of agreements that are rarely honoured once the dust settles, and threats to sack union officials and arrests.

Right now, the government has appealed against the court ruling. But in the meantime, parents' uncertainty continues.

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