Teachers in Jordan have launched an open-ended strike in search of higher pay, as negotiations with the government fall flat. Striking teachers claim that the government has failed to implement a 50% pay raise agreed upon in 2014. The strike, organized by the Jordanian Teachers’ Association (JTA), comes in the context of significant political unrest in Jordan, as well as demands for better working conditions for teachers across the Arab world.
The JTA, which has gained some 140,000 registered members since its founding in 2011, has called upon teachers to attend official working hours but not to enter classrooms. JTA deputy leader Nasser al-Nawasrah said the strike is a reaction to events earlier this month, when security forces prevented thousands of teachers from marching to demand an audience with Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz.
“The government turned its back on us,” al-Nawasrah said. “Despite various attempts, we still have not met with the prime minister.” Negotiations between the teachers and the government are stalled for the time being.
Over 100,000 teachers are currently taking part in the strike-action across Jordan, which affects around 1.3 million pupils. Those assembled for the protests in Amman on September 12 demanded that Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz, who is also the former Minister of Education, engage directly with their demands for a pay raise, rather than delegating responsibility to subordinate officials.
Yet Jumana Ghunaimat, a government spokesperson, told Jordanian media that it is not necessary for al-Razzaz to meet with the teachers personally. “The solution to this issue is [for the teachers union] to sit with the ministerial delegation without any pre-conditions and to push for the return of the students to their seats,” Ghunaimat said.
“Public school teachers are barely eking out a living on government salaries and, therefore, must look for second jobs such as driving taxis or working as laborers in order to support their families.”
Many teachers in Jordan live near the poverty line. “Public school teachers are barely eking out a living on government salaries and, therefore, must look for second jobs such as driving taxis or working as laborers in order to support their families,” one striking teacher told Al Jazeera. This is despite the fact that it is illegal for teachers to take second jobs in the country.
Jordanian public school teachers earn between 360 and 450 Jordanian dinars per month ($500 to $635), barely above the “absolute poverty line” of 340 dinar ($479) for a family of five, according to the government’s statistics department. The Jordanian government claims that it does not have the funds to meet the teachers demands, which amount to a total of 116 million dinars ($163 million).
Some politicians even question whether Jordan’s teachers were promised a 50% pay raise in 2014. Member of Parliament Khalil Atieh said: “The government has never committed itself, officially, to give the teachers the raise they have been demanding since 2014.” An education ministry spokesperson named Walid al-Jallad echoed those sentiments, saying: “The teachers should end their strike and come to the negotiation table without any preconditions.” This is despite the fact that the pledge was included in parliamentary proceedings in 2014.
Teachers union spokesperson Noureddine Nadim told Al Jazeera that the officials’ claims are disingenuous. “Teachers are fed up with the government’s lies and deception tactics to demonize the teachers and rob them of their basic right to live in dignity and support their families.” He added that the government should also end its media smear campaign against public school teachers. Regardless of the nuances of this particular debate, it is clear that there has been a breakdown of trust between educators and the political system, both in Jordan and the wider MENA region.
Jordan is perhaps considered the most politically stable country in the Middle East, yet this apparent stability has somewhat slipped in recent years. In June 2018, the country saw wide-scale protests against a government proposed tax hike that eventually led to King Abdullah II replacing his Prime Minister. The tax increases were in line with IMF-driven austerity measures in Jordan.
The striking teachers have added a request for an apology for the abuse of teachers at the protest to their official list of demands, along with the 50% pay raise and the opening of a meaningful dialogue.
A year later on September 12, 2019, Jordan’s teachers followed suit, with tens of thousands gathering for protests in the country’s capital, Amman. Some 50 teachers were arrested at the protests, although they were later released. Teachers’ union officials have claimed that many of their number suffered verbal and physical abuse at the hands of government security forces, with footage of some such incidents being posted to social media. Some of the footage appears to show protesters being tear gassed and beaten. Union spokesperson Noureddine Nadim has said that the striking teachers have added a request for an apology for the abuse of teachers at the protest to their official list of demands, along with the 50% pay raise and the opening of a meaningful dialogue.
The striking teachers are demanding higher wages to be guaranteed unconditionally, while the Jordanian education Ministry has stated that any pay raise must be linked to higher performance. In practice, higher performance is likely to mean that teachers would have to publish independent research, take outside courses, and attend academic seminars. Most regard such demands as unfair and unfeasible. “On top of our school work and family obligations, where we would we find the time to conduct research or take outside training to qualify for the government raise?,” one teacher asked Al Jazeera.
The events in Jordan are part of a trend. Across the MENA region, there is a growing call for worker’s rights, particularly in the state-sector. Earlier this year, Morocco’s teachers engaged in large-scale, peaceful strike-action, demanding higher pay and greater protection. As the Jordanian teachers begin their fight, the struggle of their Moroccan counterparts continues.
Speaking to Inside Arabia on September 16, one Moroccan teacher’s union leader said: “We believe that teachers worldwide must support each other since we face almost the same issues. Hence, we do support our Jordanian fellow teachers.” Morocco’s teachers have also faced violence in some cases.
After five years of waiting, Jordan’s teachers are saying that they have finally had enough. It appears that, for now at least, they have a substantial proportion of the public on their side. This reflects a common mood throughout the MENA region among teachers and other public-sector workers. If they are to succeed in their fight, it will require widespread solidarity and cooperation that transcends class divides and national borders.