Having rejected a government proposal to increase their salaries in two installments from 2022, an alliance of school teachers’ and principals’ trade unions in Sri Lanka said on Wednesday (13) that they will continue what has turned out to be one of the longest strikes in the island’s history.
Now into its fourth month, the strike is likely to derail the government’s plans to reopen around 5,000 schools out of over 10,000 that have been closed for the better part of the year due to the COVID-19 epidemic. The strike has already hampered distant learning efforts, as teachers have stayed away from online education since July.
The trade unions are stubbornly clinging to a demand that salary recommendations proposed in the Subodhini Committee report be implemented. The Subhodnii report is a document formulated by a committee that was appointed by a former education minister.
“We decided to continue our strike, asking the government to implement the Subodhini report’s recommendations in order to solve our issue,” Ceylon Teachers Union Secretary Joseph Stalin told the privately owned television network Derana on Wednesday.
In place of the Subodhini recommendations, Stalin said, trade unions are receptive to another report by the current cabinet, but are against its proposal to increase their pay in four stages. The trade unions demand the increment in a single step, he said.
“We noticed that [Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa] was trying to give us what we ask for, but the secretary to the treasury and the budget proposal director [was] saying it cannot be done,” Stalin said.
A crucial round of talks was held between the union leaders and a group of ministers led by Prime Rajapalsa on Tuesday (12). The meeting ended without a decision.
“It was said at the meeting that they still havem’t allocated money for this in the budget. If a final decision is not given by October 21, when they say they will open some schools, we will take a decision on whether to go to school or not,” Stalin told Derana TV.
“We will continue our strike with online education as well. We would have started online education by now had these discussions happened earlier. The cabinet decision was given on August 30. We continued asking for a meeting with higher authorities, and only yesterday we got the chance.”
Meanwhile, ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna MP S B Dissanayaka said both the president and the prime minister have been trying to resolve the issue amicably.
“Teachers should come to school and start work. Otherwise we have to defeat and suppress the strike and restart the schools. It has been done in the past. Advanced rich countries such as Singapore have done it. Otherwise they will still be like us,” Dissanayake told reporters on Tuesday.
The teachers’ and principals’ strike over salary anomalies has been continuing for 94 days as of Wednesday.
School teachers and principals have been at loggerheads with the government demanding a solution to salary issues that have plagued the service for 24 years.
Tuesday’s meeting sought to bring the strike to an end before starting small schools with a student population of fewer than 200 on October 21.
The government at the Tuesday meeting proposed to reduce the increment installment to two from an earlier three and stood its ground that it cannot be given at once in the 2022 budget, Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena had said.
The lingering strike has already drawn public criticism, particularly over the government’s handling of the teachers’ issue.
Minister Gunawardena had previously declared school teachers’ and principals’ services as a “closed service” on August 31.
Both teachers’ and principals’ services are under the public service. But declaring them a closed service will allow the government to treat teachers and principals separately from the rest of the public service when resolving their demands of salary anomalies, wages, transfers, and other benefits.
This will also mean that cadres from the teachers and principals services cannot be transferred to any other public services.
The government earlier announced a special allowance of 5,000 rupees for teachers and principals who will be on duty during September and October 2021, the months in which the government had planned to hold GCE Advanced Level and grade 5 scholarship examinations.
The education ministry had postponed the two key exams, amid much public criticism.