TEACHERS’ unions have vowed to challenge the Education (Amendment) Bill of 2019 which was tabled last week in parliament, saying that it is meant to repress teachers rather than solve their grievances.
The unions have accused the Minister of Education and Training, Professor Ntoi Rapapa, of acting in bad faith by allegedly seeking amendments to the Education Act of 2010 to give himself and his successors more powers to control and ensure the dismissal of teachers whenever they stage job action to press the government to resolve their grievances.
The teachers are particularly miffed by the proposed amendments which will allow the government to enforce the “no work, no pay” policy on teachers who absent themselves from work without permission.
Part of the bill states that “if a teacher is absent from duty without permission, the principle of no work no pay shall apply notwithstanding any disciplinary procedure provided for under this act”.
The bill was presented to parliament against the background of the ongoing month-long teachers’ strike which has brought learning to a standstill around the country.
The teachers have been on strike since 18 February to press the government to award them salary increments and improve their working conditions.
The strike was instigated by three teachers’ unions, namely, the Lesotho Association of Teachers (LAT), Lesotho Teachers Trade Union (LTTU) and the Lesotho School Principals Association (LeSPA). Ahead of the strike, the Teaching Service Department in the Ministry of Education fired LAT chairperson Letsatsi Ntsibolane on 30 January 2019 for allegedly neglecting his teaching duties last November and inciting teachers to go on an illegal strike.
And the sacking of Mr Ntsibolane did not gone down well with the teachers who demanded his reinstatement as one of the preconditions to negotiate with the inter-ministerial team which was recently set up by the government to look into their grievances. Mr Ntsibolane who was one of the victims of the no work, no pay principle, was reinstated last week through a court order which was issued in the aftermath of a settlement with the government.
But the Education bill is seen as repressive by the teachers as it seeks to legalise the no work no pay principle.
The Bill also provides that where an inspector discovers a breach of discipline committed by a teacher, “the inspector shall instruct an immediate supervisor of the teacher to take disciplinary action against the teacher in terms of the disciplinary code”.
“The instructed supervisor shall comply with the instruction,” the Bill reads.
“If the immediate supervisor fails to comply with the provision of sub-section (1), he commits a breach of discipline and is liable to disciplinary action,” it reads.
The Bill also says the ministry may appoint a committee to inquire into the alleged breach of discipline if the immediate supervisor fails to take disciplinary action against a teacher.
“The committee shall make recommendations to the appointing authority.” In dealing with labour disputes, the government is seeking to substitute the Conciliation Board with the Conciliator who will be appointed by the minister to “conciliate disputes of interests among parties to the dispute”.
The Bill interprets “dispute of interest” as a dispute over employment matters to which a teacher or appointing authority does not have a right. The Bill also seeks to give the ministers powers to “appoint up to six persons as deputy members of” the Teaching Service Tribunal.
“The Tribunal shall have powers to deal with dismissal cases occasioned by the operation of law,” the Bill reads.
“The Minister shall take necessary measures to ensure that proper teaching and learning at a school is not compromised and where circumstances warrant, the minister may take appropriate action as may be prescribed against the relevant structures.”
While Minister Rapapa says the Bill will improve the management of the education sector and ensure the principles of good governance, the teachers view it as a draconian instrument aimed at emasculating them and giving the minister greater powers to repress them.
Mr Ntsibolane recently told the Lesotho Times that they only agreed to two provisions concerning the retirement age of teachers and the hiring of school principals on a permanent and pensionable basis. He said the rest of the provisions were arbitrarily imposed by Prof Rapapa as an act of self-aggrandisement with a view to curtailing teachers’ rights.
“From the entire bill, the only things we had agreed upon with the government was to reduce the teachers’ retirement age from 65 to 60 and that the school principals should be hired on a permanent and pensionable basis not on contracts terms like before.
“Those are only the two things which we agreed on and the rest are Prof Rapapa’s own. For instance, he wants the law to allow him to enter schools and discipline a teacher himself when there are so many disciplinary structures in between him as a minister and a teacher.
“He also wants powers to appoint an arbitrator whenever there is a dispute and that the education inspectors be given powers to order a dismissal of a teacher with immediate effect rather than recommend a dismissal as it has been doing. It is clear that he only wants to have the upper hand next time teachers have grievances,” Mr Ntsibolane said.
The spokesperson for the LTTU and LeSPA, Tšepo Lethobane, described the bill as an obstacle to the teachers’ struggle for improved working conditions.
“It is quite clear that the amendment of the bill was informed by the (ongoing teachers’) strike therefore the minister drafted it out of aggression. Such powers cannot be bestowed upon a politician or one person because his decisions will be discriminatory.
“When we started this war, we knew very well that there would be challenges along the way. Last year when we announced that we wanted to strike, they announced that another teachers’ union as the only which could apply for a strike because it allegedly had the majority representation of teachers but we challenged that in court and won.
“The government launched several appeals in court against our intention to strike but it lost. We will still overcome this bill in the same way we did with other obstacles. We are prepared to fight till teachers are liberated,” Mr Lethobane said.