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Since 8 September 2019, most of the 87,000 teachers from Jordan’s public education sector have been striking for better living conditions and greater respect from the government. Their demands centre around their salaries, which are close to the poverty line.
The strike, now in its fourth week, is one of the longest in the region’s history and is affecting around 4,000 public schools serving more than 1.4 million students.
It followed a protest organized by the Jordan Teachers’ Syndicate (JTS) on 5 September demanding a 50 per cent pay increase, which the government allegedly agreed in 2014 but has failed to implement.
The protest was met with a harsh police response. According to reports, tear gas was used to control the protesters. Footage and images showing police violence flooded social media. A total of 50 teachers were detained but later released.
On Twitter, one user wrote, ‘What happened in [the capital] Amman today could be one of the worst crisis the country has seen in recent history’. Another posted, ‘The police state of Jordan today is violating people’s right to protest safely, threatening to arrest them, [attacking] them with tear gas (a chemical weapon) and paralyzing the whole city centre.’
The police denied the allegations. According to the Jordan News Agency, the Public Security Directorate contradicted reports that violations had been committed against protesters. Instead, it asserted that the security forces showed ‘utmost restraint’ towards teachers and blamed the latter for taunting them and forcing ‘their way through’ roadblocks.
In a statement published on its official Facebook page at the beginning of the protests, the JTS announced that the ‘open-ended’ strike would continue until the government grants the requested wage increase.
The JTS claims that this increase was promised to teachers five years ago and is long overdue. Before the start of the 2014/2015 school year, the JTS had planned a strike to demand an increase in the basic salary. The strike was suspended, however, after the government’s apparent endorsement of their demands.
According to JTS spokesperson Noureddine Nadim, “Five years later, both the government and the parliament reneged on their promises and failed the teachers who are educating the entire country.”
The teachers also argue that they are the lowest paid civil servants. According to The National newspaper, street cleaners in Amman receive a higher wage than entry-level teachers.
For now, the government has refused to meet the teachers’ demands, maintaining that a 50 per cent raise would cost the country around $158 million.
Government spokesperson Jumana Ghneimat declared on 17 September that the solution is for the JTS “to sit with the ministerial delegation without any pre-conditions and to push for the return of the students to their seats”.
Instead of a blanket raise, the government initially suggested that salaries should be determined based on teacher’s performance. The JTS strongly criticized the suggestion, saying it sets high standards with no concrete means to achieve them.
In addition to a pay raise, the teachers are asking for a formal apology for the physical harm caused by the police during the protests. They also want a meaningful dialogue with the government.
Two main reasons may explain the government’s unwillingness to give in to the strikers’ demands. First, the country, which already depends heavily on foreign aid, has suffered an economic downturn and is undergoing harsh IMF-backed austerity measures that are stretching the national budget. Second, it fears the potential effects on other public service sectors.
The strikers also face waning public support. As a case in point, members of the JTS appeared in a West Amman court on 19 September to defend a complaint against the strike filed by parents worried about the consequences on their children’s education.
Public backing continues to decline as negotiations with the government stall, with no end in sight for the 1.4 million students who have yet to start their school year.
For Tuqa Nusairat, deputy director of the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, the teachers’ intransigence is understandable when one considers the poverty rates in the country, although asking for a 50 per cent pay increase may appear to some as unrealistic in the current economic context.
Public sector teachers receive between $550 and $700 a month, which is slightly above the poverty line established by the government in 2010 of $515 per month for a family of five. The authorities themselves are now questioning this threshold, given the economic changes observed in the intervening years.
According to a recent survey by the Arab Barometer, 71 per cent of the population considers the economy to be Jordan’s top challenge, and nearly 90 per cent of the respondents believe corruption is rampant in state institutions.
While protests in Jordan have been mounting in the last year around the issue of corruption and a widely decried income tax, none of them seriously threatened the monarchy. Discontent has nevertheless precipitated several government reshuffles in a bid to appease public uproar.
In an attempt to bring the current strike to an end, the government proposed on 28 September a salary increase of between 6-18 per cent. The JTS dismissed the proposal. In a statement, the syndicate’s deputy head Nasser al-Nawasrah declared that the solution was one-sided. “This is an authoritarian method. We donate these breadcrumbs to the government,” he said.
Jordan’s Administrative Court issued a ruling the next day asking for the strike to be halted after the syndicate refused the new offer.
According to some analysts, the ongoing social conflict is emblematic of increasing inequalities over the last 30 years.
In an op-ed for The Jordan Times, Fares Braizat, chairman of NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions, wrote, ‘Since the early 1990s, the conventional social contract has been changing and inequalities have been increasing despite the growth of the nation’s GDP to the highest levels since the inception of the kingdom. The inequalities are practically symbolized by the teachers’ strike today.’