Yesterday, while stuffing envelopes for the upcoming election for our local teachers’ union, I received a text message from a good friend in Malawi. It seems that he had just been re-elected as Secretary General for the Teacher’s Union of Malawi. As I stuffed 11,000 flyers into hundreds of envelopes I thought of the similarities and differences between our working conditions.
Here in Toronto the candidates for the positions of Executive Officer have access to their members. They can email, visit schools, make phone calls and hold information meetings. They pay for printing of their own flyers and are responsible for distributing them using our inter-office courier. Flyers are printed in colour and black and white depending on the candidate’s personal preference and budget. Here in Toronto we have 14 executive officers representing 11,000 teachers. These officers are supported by volunteers in schools and in families of schools. They have the difficult job of constantly defending our collective agreement, clarifying our rights and supporting teachers through a variety of challenges including allegations of abuse, teacher performance appraisals and transfer procedures.
In Malawi, things are a bit different. No candidate would ever consider flyers or emails during their campaign. Few teachers in Malawi have access to a computer, let alone email. The mail system is unreliable and printing costs are outrageous. I once had snapshots printed at a cost of 75 cents each. Candidates would not think of calling their members as calls cost up to 30 cents a minute when the network is actually working. Many teachers live in areas with no cellular network. Travel within Malawi is becoming increasingly more expensive. Members can not attend meetings as it would cost some, a month’s salary to get to the meeting.
In Malawi 14 officers are elected to represent 66,000 teachers. These officers are faced with the challenging tasks of fighting for teachers’ rights. They have no collective agreement. The government has refused to implement such a binding contract, instead they work on good faith. Last year the Teacher’s Union of Malawi (TUM) was faced with the challenge of ensuring that all teachers were paid on time. Those teachers without bank accounts and even many with accounts, were made to wait up to 6 weeks for their monthly pay cheques. This happened for several months in a row. TUM also fought and won the battle to get a remote living allowance for those teachers living in the most rural areas of Malawi. Also, a battle was waged to get electricity in the houses of primary school teachers. I believe that battle has not yet been won.
Here in Ontario teachers are placed on a salary grid depending on their years of experience and education. As of now, teachers can easily move to the top of the grid by taking courses at their own expense. Each year of service, up to 10 years results in a teacher moving up the grid to a slightly higher wage. Teachers make a good salary and do not need to hold a second job in order to make ends meet. During my 14 years as a teacher I’ve received a small pay raise each year as part of our negotiated contract to address the increase in cost of living.
In Malawi, teachers are placed on a similar grid using similar grid. Their education and experience is counted to place them appropriately. Malawian teachers can move up the pay grid by applying foa promotion. They must only apply after being at a stage for a minimum of 4 years. If their application is accepted they can attend an interview and explain why they are a valuable member of the profession who deserves a pay increase. Few teachers are granted interviews, so a 5th year teacher may compete against a 12th year teacher for the same promotion. Malawians, like Canadians, are given a cost of living increase each year. Sadly, their increase amounts to an increase of approximately 75 cents a year.
I’ve written often of the differences in the working conditions here and in Malawi. Our schools here have electricity and glass in the windows. Our students are provided with supplies, textbooks and desks. Our schools are cleaned by professionals. We have gymnasiums, musical instruments, computers, libraries full of current and relevant materials, access to resources and time to prepare lessons. Our class sizes are manageable. None of this exists in Malawi. With classes of up to 120 students with one teacher, no furniture in classrooms, no resources for teachers and libraries of English books written in the 1950s donated from churches in the western world it is a wonder Malawians ever choose to be teachers.
I think we are very lucky to work in the environment in which we do. We need to fight for the rights we have earned so that ours can continue to be hailed as a strong and valid system.