Discontent could be contagious in Kyrgyzstan. Teachers are threatening to resume a nationwide strike, and grumbling healthcare workers may join them.
In early December, thousands of teachers walked out of classrooms, calling for a massive pay raise. The new Kyrgyz government countered that it didn’t have the leeway, given the disarray in the country’s fiscal affairs, to provide the type of salary boost that teachers are seeking. Teachers suspended their protests in early January, but are now vowing to walk out again in the near future if their demand for a 100-percent salary increase is not met.
Teachers generally earn between $30 and $60 per month. That’s well below the national per capita income, which in 2009 was $183, according to government statistics. “We are tired of living on meager salaries. How much humiliation can we take?” complained a teacher from a secondary school in Issyk-Kul Province.
The teacher’s grievance resonates widely in this the mountainous country. Even some education officials are supportive of the teachers: “What teachers are paid is not enough,” said Shakir Shabdanov, head of the Bazar-Korgon District Education Department. “A teacher’s work is not easy. And it’s stressful.”
On December 9, Education Minister Kanat Sadykov offered teachers a blanket 30-percent raise, as well as subsidies on some essential food items. Many responded that the amount is not enough and continued picketing, though in early January a teachers’ union suspended the protests to give officials time to come up with more money.
Asylbek Toktogulov, the chairman of the Central Committee of the Union of Education Professionals, wants a teacher’s starting salary to be 6,800 soms, the 24.kg news agency reported on January 12. In addition, he says the government should give teachers interest-free loans, land plots, and certain exemptions from utility payments.
“A teacher’s average salary is 3,000 soms [$63] a month, but young teachers who have just started their careers get as little as 1,600 soms [$33],” complained Gulya, a Russian-language teacher in Osh. “I have been teaching for 23 years and I get only 2,800 soms.”
Officials say the treasury lacks the funds to provide a massive, across-the-board pay hike. “Teachers are not happy that their salaries will be increased by only 30 percent, but they should understand there is no money for a 100-percent raise,” 24.kg quoted Damira Niyazalieva, an MP from the governing Social Democratic Party, as saying January 4. “Teachers should understand that protest demonstrations are not a way out; pickets will not bring money into the [national] budget.”
If demands for a 6,800-som starting salary are not met by January 21, Toktogulov says he will tell 68,000 teachers to walk out. He says he is also negotiating with healthcare workers to have them join the protests. On January 10, the finance minister said he could not raise health care professionals’ salaries.
Some parents support the teachers not only because they fear the rapidly falling education standards in Kyrgyzstan (the country was ranked last on a recent OECD survey of students in 65 countries). In many schools, parents are expected to complement teachers’ salaries; paying for good marks is common.
Aymira Ismailova, the mother of a student at Bishkek’s Secondary School Number 29 complains that poor salaries are forcing teachers to seek “illegal supplements” from parents.
“A public association was established at my daughter’s school, which makes agreements with parents at the beginning of each school year, according to which we voluntary contribute 316 soms every month,” Ismailova told EurasiaNet.org. “Without such a contract, teachers may refuse to admit your child to the school. But, I don’t blame teachers because they get very small salaries.”
Students are the most likely to suffer during this period of educational uncertainty, civil society activists warn. Disagreements between schoolteachers and the government should not affect a child’s right to an education, says Nazgul Turdubekova, the head of the League of Children’s Rights Advocates, a Bishkek-based non-governmental organization. She supports the teachers’ demands for better pay.
“Despite the protests, the government is obliged to ensure the rights of children to receive a decent education,” Turdubekova told EurasiaNet.org. She added that the schoolteachers’ anger is poisoning the atmosphere in classrooms across the country. “Children should not suffer from teacher strikes, so the government should take urgent measures to increase salaries.”