NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan 22 – The Cabinet on Thursday urged striking teachers to go back to work and give the government a chance to effect their proposed pay-hike within 25 months, instead of a three-year period.
A statement issued after a Cabinet meeting chaired by President Mwai Kibaki at State House Nairobi appealed to the teachers to give dialogue a chance to ensure learning continued in schools across the country.
"The Government will harmonise their salaries with other public servants within a period of 25 months, i.e. July 2009-July 2011. It took six years for members of the civil service to attain their current salary scales," the statement from the President’s Press Service said.
The Cabinet assured teachers that the economy was projected to sufficiently recover in the next two years, by which time the economy would be able to absorb the huge salary increase without any resultant budgetary or inflationary instability.
The Ministers pointed out that "the Government cannot increase taxes for other Kenyans at this point in time to enable one lump sum payment."
It added: "The public through the government has to shoulder the heavy burden of food purchases to cater for 10 million Kenyans now considered food-insecure."
Soon after the Cabinet statement, the Secretary General of the Kenya National Union of Teachers Lawrence Majali told Capital News that the latest development was positive but remained non-committal whether they would call off their strike.
"We have to see the proposal first. Let them bring it on the table, we look at it and negotiate," he said.
Mr Majali confirmed that the union would appear before the industrial court on Friday morning following a notice placed in the newspapers notifying them of a pending case with the Teachers Service Commission.
On Tuesday, the union officials skipped a court hearing arguing that they had not been served with any notice.
The Labour Minister appointed an arbitration panel last Friday after the talks collapsed, paving way for an all out strike this week.
Before the Cabinet issued its plea, the government negotiator who is arbitrating dispute said no progress could be realised unless the Education ministry ceded more ground.
Deputy Labour Commissioner Alice Tabu told Capital News on phone that it would be fruitless to call the KNUT officials to the negotiating table, if the government stuck to the same offer that the teachers had rejected.
"If the employer can be a bit flexible, then I can call back the union officials," she said, adding that she was aware of ongoing negotiations within concerned arms of government.
Ms Tabu however remained optimistic: "We will come to a solution as we have always done."
The strike has paralysed learning in all public primary schools affecting more than 8.5 million pupils.
Teachers downed their tools on Monday and have vowed not to go back to class unless the government gives them a lump sum payment amounting to Sh19 billion. The State had however insisted that it could only pay Sh17.3 billion over a three-year period.
KNUT appeared to cede ground on Tuesday saying it was willing to wait another six months before the government accorded them the entire pay-rise. But the acting Finance Minister John Michuki and his Education counterpart Sam Ongeri were adamant that the economy could not support the teachers’ demands.
The union and the Teachers’ Service Commission (TSC) are expected to face off in the industrial court on Friday, after the TSC obtained a court order barring KNUT members from engaging in the mass action. But Ms Tabu said the court process had hurt the negotiations.
"We met on Friday and they (union) were ready to put every possible effort so that we proceed successfully, but when the issue of the order came they took a step back," she said.
Pressure has been mounting on the government to resolve the crisis. Parliament adjourned normal business on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the predicament and backbenchers threatened to shoot down government Bills if the government did not pay the teachers in at least two phases.
The Kenya National Association of Parents on Thursday called on President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga to intervene and resolve the dispute.
Secretary General Musau Ndunda challenged the two principals to fulfil pledges they made to the teachers in the run-up to the 2002 elections that they would address their plight.