On strike since last fall, Gabonese teachers are calling on public authorities to negotiate and quickly respond to trade union demands aimed at improving the education system and obtaining better teaching and learning conditions.
The Syndicat de l'Education Nationale (SENA), an affiliate of Education International (EI), re-launched a teachers' strike on 31 October 2016, an action which followed an original strike on 16 January 2016, but was suspended on 30 January in accordance with the agreement signed with the Ministry of National Education.
At the start of the 2016-17 school year, the union wrote once more to the Minister of Education to request his compliance with the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding. The SENA met with the Ministers concerned, namely the ministers of National Education, the Budget and Public Service, without receiving a favourable response, thus leading to the status quo being maintained. The SENA however had complied with the terms of the reached agreement with the government, teachers having organised end-of year examinations, and starting of the 2016-17 school year.
This is why a new strike was called on, and is currently still ongoing.
Working conditions not conducive to quality education
The main trade union demands are:
· The construction of facilities to resolve the problem of overcrowded classrooms and their provision with sufficient equipment, including the provision of tables and benches to schools;
· The cancellation of the decision to convert eight primary schools into lower secondary education schools;
· The payment of owed benefits, such as examination fees and the performance incentive premium;
· The holding of internal competitive entrance examinations at the Ecole normale supérieure (teacher training college) that were scheduled but postponed; and
· The adoption of decrees establishing a joint bargaining committee and a teachers' day every 23 March (to mark the assassination of trade union activist Martine Oulabour by the police on 23 March 1992).
“For 20 years, we have been denouncing the same structural problems in the management of the education system,” recalled Fridolin Mve Messa, General Secretary of the National Education Union (SENA), denouncing “a tense education situation, sometimes with over 200 students per class, the establishment of student rotations, both in primary and secondary education, with some students attending class in the morning, and others in the afternoon. In some cases, the children have to sit on the classroom floor”.
There is therefore a demand for facilities, and 3,000 teachers must be urgently recruited, in quantity and quality, mainly in scientific subjects, he stated.
He also deplored the fact that “the commoditisation of education is underway in Gabon,” given that the State is opening the education sector to the private sector which builds schools, resulting in the fact that “there are now more private schools than public schools”.
Mve Messa also emphasized his union's call and desire to return to the negotiating table: “We want both parties to meet to put an end to the crisis,” and “see what the government can do in the short, medium and long term”.
A growing strike
The Convention Nationale des Syndicats du Secteur Education (CONASYSED), a trade union coalition of seven education trade unions, joined forces with the SENA. As a result, three quarters of all teachers are on strike.
In Libreville, the private Catholic education sector has joined the public sector, stated Mve Messa, adding that around 80 percent of the country's schools are now closed.
He also stated that parents will be taking to the streets of Libreville on 25 February to demand a resolution to this crisis in the education sector. Moreover, after close to four months without school, students held organised marched throughout the country to call the authorities to action.
More investment in education needed
According to the World Bank, while the percentage of Gabon’s national budget allocated to education is around 13, it stays below the African average of 19 percent. The 2015 Education for All’s national report for Gabon also found that only 1 percent of the national gross domestic product goes to the education sector, to be compared with an average close to 6 percent for countries with similar revenues.
The average monthly salary for primary teachers is 350,000 CFA francs ($565 USD) and 500,000 CFA francs ($805 USD) for secondary teachers, lower to the average salary in Gabon of 839 US dollars, as shown by the World Bank in 2012. Mve Messa also explained that while teachers’ salaries are similar to the ones of other workers in the public administration, teachers do not benefit from the same professional advantages and incentives.
On the international stage
The Gabonese government is already on the international community's radar.
As regards the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, the expert committee for the application of the ILO's conventions and recommendations had asked the government to provide information on the number of strikes that occurred in the public sector, the sectors affected and the number of strikes having been prohibited on the grounds of a potential disruption of public order.
In the same report published on 8 February, and following the observations received from EI which denounced the adoption of various laws making it increasingly difficult to exercise trade union activities in the education sector, the committee also asked the Gabonese government "to indicate the measures taken in the education sector to guarantee access to schools for trade union organisations in order to enable them to fulfil their functions of representing and defending their members' interests".