Jordan teachers’ strike underscores educational woes, exasperates parents

AMMAN - Jordan’s teachers’ strike continued after talks between the Jordan Teachers Association and the government failed to meet teachers’ demands for a 50% pay rise they claimed was promised five years ago by a previous government.

The strike rubbed salt in the wounded public educational system. Public schools are facing many challenges, such as ageing buildings, traditional curriculum, lack of resources and crowded classrooms. Also more Jordanian students have been moving from private to public schools, which apply two shifts to accommodate more than 131,000 Syrian refugees.

With various challenges facing the educational system in a country with 3,856 public schools, cries of desperation by parents echo all over Jordan asking for a quick solution to help their children.

The nationwide strike enforced since September 8 by more than 100,000 public school teachers kept 1.5 million students from starting the new school year, alarming parents and putting pressure on the government.

Jordanian Prime Minister Omar Razzaz refused to give in to pressure by the 140,000-person Jordan Teachers Association (JTA), insisting that only with "open dialogue" could the crisis be solved.

"The government is serious and committed to finding a fair and practical solution to end the teachers' strike,” said Minister of State for Media Affairs and Government Spokesperson Jumana Ghunaimat.

“Our main concern is to ensure better working conditions and salaries for the teachers and we will work on that through a joint committee that will be formed from the government and JTA."

Ghunaimat said previous governments "never promised” teachers a 50% raise. “They have pledged to improve the working conditions and salaries of the teachers and this is the aim of the current government starting 2020,” he said.

At a recent rally, JTA spokesman Noor Dein Nadeem called the government "stupid" in a video circulated on social media.

"We need a solution for our children who are sitting at home. We are trying to give them some lessons so that they will not miss anything," said Aseel Taha, a mother of three.

"Someone should take responsibility for such a crisis and we, as parents, need a solution. It is not enough to say matters will be resolved while students are losing time and missing out on education."

This is not the first strike by the JTA, said Nidal Mansour, executive president of the Centre of Defending Freedom of Journalists.

"In 2014, there was another strike by the JTA, which was established after 2011 as part of the gains reaped from the ‘Arab spring’ such as the Constitutional Court and the Independent Election Commission of Jordan," Mansour said.

"Since it was established, there were concerns and fears by the government that this association will be different from other entities in the sense that it would have 120,000 members and more than 1.5 million students and that in case of a strike, public life will be strongly affected."

The strike started when the JTA was banned from organising a sit-in outside the prime minister’s seat at Amman’s Fourth Circle but was allowed to protest outside parliament. It escalated as teachers insisted on the previous location, which led to a rough stand between them and security forces.

The Public Security Department denied allegations of abuse but said 50 teachers had been detained during the protest for “illegally forcing their way through to the government’s headquarters."

Mansour said negotiations between the JTA and the government failed to reach a solution because the government is refusing, or not able, to meet demands for 50% salary hikes that would cost the budget $169 million.

"The government could go to court and take the decision to dissolve the JTA council based on the legitimate reason that the strike is having a negative effect on the educational system,” Mansour said.

“I believe that the JTA could have used other ways to convey its demands without resorting to a total strike for mobilising more allies. The government is trying to discredit the association by accusing it of disrupting students’ education. It fears seeing copycat strikes by other associations, like the Jordan Medical Association, for example, emulating the JTA if [the government] responded positively to the strike," he said.

A public opinion poll about the teachers' strike conducted by Jordan's NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions, a research, polling and consultancy firm, indicated that that 56% of Jordanian respondents said they opposed the strike.

Isra', a history teacher, said she supports the strike because she believes teachers are seriously underpaid.

"We understand that the situation has reached a decisive point but we as teachers also believe that we deserve the 50% raise as our right. I am a single person who earns $564, which is not enough so imagine if I had a family. The cost of living in Jordan is getting really high and with such salary we cannot live," said Isra', who asked to be identified by her first name.

On how to compensate the loss of classes, Isra' said: "We can do that as we have the responsibility of giving students the best education and classes can be compensated on weekends or during the winter vacation."

Mansour said the government should admit the errors that led to the strike, acknowledge the raise and negotiate a rescheduling of pay over the next few years.

Approximately 5 million classes and 3.7 million hours of study have been lost, a media study stated.