TALKS to end the teachers three week old strike hit a dead end yesterday. The strike has now entered its 14th day, longer than the 1997 teachers strike that lasted 11 days.
The teachers union yesterday rejected an offer from a cabinet sub committee while Finance Minister Njeru Githae insisted that government cannot pay what they are demanding.
The sub committee had proposed that teachers salaries be harmonized with the pay of civil servants in three phases, starting from July 1 this year, followed by January 1, 2013, and July 1, 2013.
Kenya National Union of Teachers chairman Wilson Sossion described the offer as "unacceptable". He said that the strike was still on and asked teachers to prepare for tougher times ahead.
"We cannot call off the strike without money, neither can we accept salary harmonization in phases. It must be paid at once just like civil servants benefited this year," he said.
Sossion said the highest paid teacher at Job Group R would get Sh4,000 in a phased salary harmonisation followed by Sh500 with the lowest Job Group H getting zero. He demanded that the calculations be based on individual teachers rather than groups.
The sub committee had also offered to withdraw the controversial Legal Notice 16 of 2003 that amended Legal Notice 534 of 1997 on allowances. That offer was conditional on the teachers calling off their strike.
"Teachers have always wanted the negotiations to be open. Unfortunately we don't know where the sub committee is holding their meetings," Sossion said.
Githae said any wage increments not provided for in the budget would make the economy uncompetitive. He said the average wage in the public sector had now surpassed the average in the private sector for the first time.
He said the government had only four options to meet the teachers' demands: borrow from outside to pay salaries; adjust tax brackets to increase tax revenue; hive off the Sh500 billion factored in the budget for development finance; or wait for the recommendations of the ongoing negotiations by the Cabinet sub-committee.
"The Sh953 billion ordinary revenue collected by the KRA annually goes into recurrent expenditure, while money budgeted for development is borrowed. If we hive off development funds, it means we'll have to stop some of the ongoing infrastructure projects," said Githae. "I urge teachers to go back to class as they allow the Cabinet sub-committee to handle the negotiations," he said.
Githae said that, under the new Public Finance Management Act, the Finance Minister has no powers to approve any expenditure not presented in the budget. "I have no powers at the moment to authorise even five cents of expenditure not included in the budget, so people should stop saying I am the obstacle," he said. "Parliament is no longer a rubber stamp, it's a budget-making institution," he added.
Githae said the Kenyan economy is still fragile and "any shock" could reduce growth from the anticipated 5-6 per cent growth this year to even less than the 1.7 per cent recorded in 2008. "It would be a very popular act to give teachers the Sh400 million they are asking for but it's not sustainable... we have to look at the economy in a holistic manner," he said.
He said former Education Minister Joseph Kamotho had been populist with the deal they made in 1997. "This is the season of strikes", he said but pointed out that certain sectors could no longer arm-twist government to raise salaries. "The Salaries and Remuneration Commission will harmonise salaries in the public sector through job grading to ensure all job groups are paid the same. Only allowances may differ depending on the nature of a job," said Githae. "At the moment what we have in the public sector is total chaos ... there is no order," he commented. "This may start pushing the private sector to push up wages. Already there have been unrest in flower farms," he said.
The public sector wage bill went up by 7.4 per cent in 2011 to Sh587.3 billion from Sh547 billion in 2010, according to the Economic Survey 2012, contributing 33.2 per cent of Kenya's total wage bill.
The Teachers Service Commission's wage bill alone went up by 16 per cent in 2011 to Sh101.9 billion from Sh87.8 billion as a result of absorption of teachers on contract and salary increments in the period. Sossion yesterday welcomed support from parents for the striking teachers.
He accused the cabinet sub committee of talking to the union through the Teacher Service Commission as a proxy. He demanded that it deal with teachers directly.