Education unions reveal that the neglect of school building maintenance, inadequate sanitary facilities, mould infested classrooms, crumbling asbestos rooftops, and unprotected power lines are creating serious health and safety hazards in Caribbean schools.
The message from Caribbean teachers’ unions is clear: education authorities should pay more attention to poor health and safety conditions in their countries' schools and classrooms. Teachers are reported having been injured, fallen ill and sometimes even die as a result of unsafe and unhealthy school environments, according to union representatives. This is why education unions from 11 countries came together in St. Vincent & the Grenadines on 15 and 16 December to examine these problems and develop a common strategy to confront them. The Caribbean Union of Teachers (CUT), which convened the conference, was asked to launch a region wide campaign to move healthy and safe school environments up the political agenda in all Caribbean countries.
The state of the public school systems in many countries in the region do not reflect the importance the people of the Caribbean attach to quality education for their children, say the CUT. Although literacy rates are higher than in most other low income countries, education budgets are falling short of meeting basic conditions. Despite the fact that the teaching profession is very well organised, de-professionalisation has also reached the shores of the island states.
During the meeting, some education unions reported anti-union trends, while others, such as the unions from Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, spoke of efforts to introduce performance pay, high stake evaluation models and other market mechanisms in their public education systems. Unions further reported that teachers' remuneration often does not provide enough income to make ends meet. As a result, the teachers' union of Antigua said it now offers training programmes for their members who try to top up their income by running small businesses, such as cake making, arts and crafts, plant and egg production.
Extreme weather conditions
Education in the Caribbean is frequently interrupted by severe weather conditions. While at the time of the conference heavy rains caused severe damage to school buildings in St. Vincent, the Bahamas Union of Teachers testified that Hurricane Matthew last October had toppled many homes in New Providence, uprooted businesses, unearthed graves, leaving "many not only physically devastated but also mentally traumatised".
Stronger union ties
Education International (EI) affiliates in the Caribbean are part of the Caribbean Union of Teachers, or CUT, which is an autonomous body integrated in Education International. At a meeting of the CUT Executive Committee, which preceded the conference, a Memorandum of Agreement was signed by CUT President Julian Monrose and EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen, according to which EI activities and programmes in the region shall be administered by the St. Lucia based CUT Secretariat as of 1 January, 2017.