This month Morocco has been embroiled in a teachers’ strike of unprecedented scale. The strike has drawn some 70,000 public school teachers, marching across the country to protest a new teacher employment contract that they see as an attack on their rights and financial security. The official demands of the group leading the strike, the National Coordination Of Forcibly Contracted Teachers (NCFCT), include: legal due process for teachers facing dismissal, protection of the right to strike, periodic pay increases, increased teacher training, improved student transport, and construction of more schools.

The story began in 2016, when government budget cuts resulted in a new contract that reduced teachers’ pay and significantly curtailed their rights. The contract was signed by around 55,000 teachers, whom the NCFCT claims were effectively “coerced” into doing so.

The NCFCT members refer to themselves as having been forcibly contracted because the lack of alternative employment was leveraged to force them to capitulate to the contract terms. 23.2 percent of Moroccan under-30s are unemployed, compared to around 10 percent in the general population. 80 percent of “contract teachers” are under 30.

“The only other option is to work in the private sector,” says NCFCT leader Zineb (not her real name). “The median pay there is about 2,000 Dirham per month [approx. $200], which is not far from slavery . . . . We know they are using this as a threat against us.”

The restructuring was largely at the request of the World Bank, which demanded repayment of the loans used to finance much of Morocco’s education system. The NCFCT was formed in 2017 to protest the new contract resulting from these changes.

The 2019 strike began with peaceful sit-ins at the Regional Academies in 12 regions, between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on March 6. Over the following days, there were protest marches across those regions, which were met with a coordinated police response. Both police and protesters have been accused of resorting to unlawful violence, particularly in the cities of Beni Mellal and Errachidia.

The NCFCT identifies two groups of teachers in Morocco. They call those who signed the new contract “contract teachers,” who are distinct from those they refer to as “permanent teachers.” The distinction underlines the NCFCT’s belief that the 2016 contract exists primarily to make it easier for the state to dismiss teachers.

Under the contract, teachers can be fired without notice, compensation, or recourse, a point reiterated nine times in the document. Teachers can be removed from their jobs, for instance, for making “a mistake,” a term which is not defined in the 16-page contract.

“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” quipped one English teacher and NCFCT leader, in a reference to George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Another reason for the uproar is the significant reduction in teacher training under the 2016 contract. Teachers are now only given around two weeks of training in addition to their university studies, compared to the previous policy of providing one year of in-work training. Pensions have also been significantly reduced. “Contracted” teachers are also less eligible for promotion and have a less clear path to becoming what is known as teaching inspectors, observers, and teacher trainers, whose pay is typically higher than regular teachers.

Several teachers told Inside Arabia of the everyday effects the new contract already has. Abelkader Brazi (not his real name) says the father of his girlfriend expressed concerns over his daughter marrying a “contract teacher,” as “pre-contract teachers have much more reliable financial stability.”

“We will not give up until we change this reality,” said Abelkader. The Moroccan government claims the changes are needed to address rising class sizes and to repay World Bank loans.

While the NCFCT has been protesting these issues since 2017, it is the latest, and so far unsigned, 2019 version of the contract that has precipitated such large numbers of teachers to come out in protest.

In 2017, the NCFCT had around 11,000 members. By now that number has multiplied seven-fold. The government is aiming to apply changes in the contract retroactively to those who signed it in 2016, 2017, and 2018, a move the NCFCT regards as a flagrant violation of teachers’ rights. These changes included forbidding teachers from having second jobs, which many say is an attempt to make teachers less financially independent and therefore less likely to strike and exercise their rights.

The NCFCT says the 2019 amendments further reveal the tendency towards privatization and “advanced regionalism.” The Moroccan education system has traditionally been overwhelmingly controlled by the Ministry of Education in Rabat. In the past three years, however, decentralizing reforms have given more power to local authorities, pitting them against each other in academic performance. One consequence of this is that, where teaching once enabled Moroccans to move around the country, newly contracted teachers must spend their entire career within one region. “If we accept these policies, it will pave the way for privatization of the education system,” NCFCT organizer Oumaima (not her real name), told Inside Arabia. “Decentralization means running education with the logic of a private corporation. The result will be that many poor people will not be able to send their children to school at all.”

The teachers’ strike is well-organized and has ties to the socialist party in Morocco—the PSU—the Marrakech offices of which have been used for NCFCT meetings. Discussion at meetings is vibrant and open. Many contributors come from other political parties, including the Islamist PJD party. Many of the leaders are women.

There is evidence that the teachers’ hard work is paying off. On the evening of March 17, the Ministry of Education posted a notice on its official Facebook page, threatening teachers with legal action if they did not return to work within two days. The NCFCT rejected the request and the post was removed within hours.

Today, tens of thousands are expected to march and hold a sit-in in Morocco’s capital Rabat, according to the NCFCT. The march coincides with the 54th anniversary of the infamous student protests of March 23, 1965, which tragically ended in several deaths.

“The political class is very worried about the use of this date,” said activist Mustapha Chadili (not his real name).

Only time will tell where this story ends, but as strike action enters its third week, Morocco’s teachers are showing no signs of backing down. Considering the scale of this popular uprising, along with a serious education crisis in Morocco in general, a significant change in Morocco’s educational system is not only necessary but might actually be on the cards.

This article was updated on April 12, 2019, to reflect a correction to the amount of teacher salaries reported.