On Friday last week, frustrated nursery and primary school teachers at Gisimba Memorial Centre School refused to hand out end-of-term report cards in protest.
Their complaint? Some teachers hadn’t received a salary for the last eight months while the lucky ones had gone ‘only’ two months without a paycheck.
One of the teachers, in an interview with The New Times aired his frustration. “Primary school teachers have not been paid for the last two months, while the nursery teachers have up to eight months in arrears. We cannot continue like this because it’s affecting our families,” complained Emmanuel Amani.
I can only feel his pain because I don’t know about the rest of you but if my salary did not reach my bank account by the first of every month, I’d become destitute in a matter of weeks.
I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent, my utility bills, the house-help’s wages and groceries; in other words, I’d quickly become a homeless, starving professional. And that is no way to live. I’d be rigorously knocking on the finance department’s door if I went a week without my salary.
Interesting enough, when asked for comment, the school sounded like the hurt party.
Calling the teachers “unruly” and lacking “professional ethics”, the head of the school Dismas Gisimba wondered why they chose to deny the pupils their report cards. In his opinion, the teachers’ unpaid salaries didn’t warrant any action; they should continue being patient.
If this report was a ‘once in a blue moon’ kind of story, I’d sympathise with the teachers and then move on. However, I’ve heard of this kind of thing too many times to count.
Teachers, miners, builders, factory workers and yes, even journalists, often go for months without payment for their services.
In my opinion, the only reason the school was able to go so long without paying them was because the administration knew that it could take the teachers for granted. The question I must ask is, would the administration have been so flippant if teachers had a union? A union that would have laid down tools months ago?
For salaried workers unions are incredibly essential. Because how else can those without power and a voice influence the powers that be? How else can you agitate for better and safer work conditions? How else can they ensure that unfair dismissals are a thing of the past? How else can they participate in management decisions?
Elsewhere in the world, workers’ guilds and unions have the clout and power to not only influence work conditions but also entire political processes.
Presently, the labour and public service ministry is looking at increasing the national minimum wage that, if I’m not mistaken, is Rwf 100 per day. That is great.
However, let us be honest with ourselves, whatever minimum wage that the ministry comes up with will be far from a ‘living wage’. And that is where unionized labour and collective bargaining comes in.
The vast majority of employers have one goal when it comes to their workers; to get the most possible out of them at the least possible cost. That is simply the way of the world and capitalism.
To think that an individual worker can change that fact of life is simply a pipe dream. If they agitate for a change to the status quo, they can simply be let go and replaced without much fuss.
However, if the same individual goes to management with the full backing of fellow staff, a staff body that is willing to lay down their tools if their demands aren’t met, then it becomes a different matter. They can strike and then can picket, putting pressure on their employers.
And even if work conditions and wages are great, a union can help guarantee that those conditions remain.
Our Constitution guarantees and protects worker’s right to unionise and strike, but until we actually act upon that right, we shouldn’t complain when we are treated with contempt and exploited. We must unionise and unionise now.