Education unions on the move to rebuild in Asia-Pacific

published 25 October 2022 updated 17 June 2024

The 9th Education International Asia-Pacific (EIAP) Regional Conference “Rebuilding the Asia-Pacific: Educators and their unions at the forefront towards a sustainable future” provided education trade unionists in the region and beyond with an extraordinary opportunity to connect, exchange experiences, new perspectives, fresh ideas, and delve deeper into achieving decent working conditions for all education sector employees, quality education for all children as well as sustainable and a just future for all.

From 18 to 20 October 2022 in Siem Reap, Cambodia, union delegates from the Asia-Pacific region used many networking opportunities, listened to inspiring high-level presentations, and participated in in-depth sessions on key issues such as union renewal, climate change, gender equality, human and trade union rights, education financing, digitalisation, and innovation. The conference was preceded by a full day of pre-conference events dedicated to issues of women, higher education, climate change education, and youth in trade unions.

On Day 1, participants were welcomed by leaders of Cambodian education unions. Raising awareness about their situation, Ouk Chayavy, President of the Cambodia Independent Teachers Association (CITTA), called for the reinstatement of 11 CITA members and the release of 5 jailed local unionists.

In his welcoming address, the Chairperson of the EIAP Regional Committee, Masaki Okajima of the Japan Teachers’ Union, stressed that, after years of pandemic, it appears clearly that “online education cannot fully recover the benefits of school education. Schools are crucial to emotional, social, mental. and physical development.” He also stressed that teacher wellbeing is directly connected to student wellbeing.

Governments must take immediate bold action to ensure quality education

“The notion that technology is a ‘magic bullet’ is misguided at best. It simply opens the door for profit-driven ed-tech companies more interested in data mining and their bottom line, than in quality education for all,” Education International’s President Susan Hopgood noted in her opening speech.

She said that “all teachers must have decent salaries, recognition, professional autonomy, and quality professional development. Governments must take bold action now.”

Concerning the challenge to promote unionism among educators, she stressed that, “as leaders in our unions, our voices matter and they must be raised. We must confidently realise our own powerful presence, our own unique credibility to organise, to mobilise to fight disinformation and all anti-democratic forces.”

In his remarks, Graeme Buckley, director of the Decent Work Team for East and South-East Asia and the Pacific within the International Labour Organization’s Asia-Pacific office, deplored that “in many places, rights have been eroded, or voices dismissed in ways that are not constructive, and not conducive to social dialogue. That is where union action is critical: critical for putting teachers at the centre of transformative education, but critical also in defending the rights of workers. How trade unions respond to the challenges and the changes will determine the future of education.”

In her video message to the conference, Ethel Agnes P Valenzuela, Director of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization, maintained that “the climate crisis is also our education crisis. Education is also the main solution. We should take advantage of these opportunities to strengthen the competencies of teachers and school leaders to move towards resilience and sustainability in education systems across the region.”

For Shoya Yoshida, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation’s Asia Pacific Region, “trade unions must go beyond traditional trade unionism and must have the potential to work with various stakeholders in society, who place the greatest emphasis on decent work”.

He went on to call on Education International “to play a crucial role,” as “working conditions in your sector are directly linked to the quality of education and therefore the collective bargaining of your affiliates is relevant not only to the interests of teachers but also students, children, future generations, and society as a whole”.

Teachers and students are at the forefront of democratic struggles

In his keynote address, Education International’s General Secretary David Edwards emphasised that, in the EIAP region, teachers and students are at the forefront of democratic struggles. “The fight is on. We know this is not simply a crisis for education. It’s a crisis for democracy. Of course, open and free countries offer a better chance for people to live useful lives than closed dictatorships do. But democracy must be fierce. It must be organized to defeat its opponents. For democracy to thrive, we must fight. This means identifying institutions working against us. It means leveraging our power to control these institutions, to make these institutions work for our students and for our planet. Teachers have long been out front and in the lead.”

On specific challenges the education trade union movement faces, he said that “public investment in a strong public sector is the only way to ensure that we get back on track for achieving inclusive and equitable education. Education International has been a leader in the effort to increase education investment via equitable, and effective taxation, calling on governments to step up and invest in teachers and education systems.”

Edwards also announced: “On International Education Day, January 24, we will launch a campaign calling on all governments to invest in the future, invest in educators and education. I believe that together, as a united global union movement we can change the narrative and ensure that every government finally recognises that money spent on our profession (on our salaries, support, professional development and ensuring our wellbeing) is not a cost but a vital investment. This is how we rebuild education.”

Developing the campaign strategy in the coming months, Education International is consulting with colleagues across all regions. “We must be out in front of this movement for change. This is no longer about persistence; it’s about prevailing over the special interests. We are no longer rising to the challenges presented to us, we are raising a movement to meet the moment. For our students, for our planet, for our profession,” Edwards concluded.

Asia-Pacific education unions embarked on a renewal journey

Anand Singh, EIAP Chief Regional Coordinator, reported on the work of the EIAP Regional Office for the past five years and the vision for the region as it embarks on a renewal journey.

He said that the reporting period is marked by the continuing chronic underfunding of education and expanding commercialisation and privatisation in/of education and public services, and by the impact of these conditions which were worsened by the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Education International and its unions in the Asia-Pacific persevered in supporting their members and in upholding the rights and wellbeing of educators and learners.

While it was an uncertain time of health and safety restrictions, almost universal school closures, and major shifts in how societies work, educators and their unions adapted and innovated to continue to promote and protect inclusive quality public education for all, advance the status and rights of teachers and education personnel, defend their trade union rights and professional freedoms, and build the collective strength and capacity to combat the persistent neoliberal and anti-union threats to public education.

“Amid this crisis in democracy, EIAP will continue advancing Education International’s campaign for rights in the Asia-Pacific region: encouraging educators and their unions to participate in political and civil society actions, continue resisting authoritarian policies and work with civic-oriented networks to lobby for a repeal of autocratic decisions, especially in education,” according to Singh.

Read the full report here.

Post-pandemic education recovery and the future of work in education

Conference Day 2 opened with a panel entitled “Post-Pandemic Education Recovery and the Future of Work in Education”, moderated by Education International’s President Susan Hopgood. This plenary dove deep into the broader multi-sectoral interlinkages beyond education and included social protection, environment, rights, and solidarity, and focused on actions needed to ensure holistic and inclusive recovery.

International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow reaffirmed ITUC's support for climate education: “We know that the climate crisis requires the strength of educators to be at the forefront of demanding just transition, where people and planet are put at the heart of all public policy. Your support, your demand for compulsory climate education is so important, and I am so pleased to be able to commit the ITUC to backing that global campaign”.

Apolinar Tolentino, regional representative of the BWI - the Global Union Federation grouping free and democratic unions with members in the Building, Building Materials, Wood, Forestry and Allied sectors - appealed to the conference delegates to actively defend democracy through its resolutions and plans of action. “State repression is happening not only in Myanmar. It is happening in the Philippines, in Cambodia, in Hong Kong. Without democracy, we cannot survive as a trade union movement. We will work with you together to ensure that the movement will survive by defending democracy.”

Meera Chandran, Assistant Professor at Centre of Excellence in Teacher Education at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India, also presented the key results of their research on the impact of COVID-19 on education and teaching in the Asia-Pacific. Among other observations, she noted that “the topmost concern for many teachers was the lack of interaction with co-workers and their students. This was even more important than concerns about increased workload, which was considerable. Thus says a lot about the relational nature of teachers’ work.”

Participants broke out into sub-regional sessions: North Asia, South Asia, West Asia, Southeast Asia and Pacific.

Later, they split up into breakout sessions on the following themes: Invest in teachers, invest in education towards sustainable recovery; Defending human and trade union rights and democracy; Educators toward a just transition; Promoting inclusive recovery.

Getting ready to meet future challenges

The final day of the 9th #EIAP2022 Regional Conference began with a panel on “Education Unions Preparing to Meet Future Challenges”, moderated by Education International’s General Secretary David Edwards.

For Correna Haythorpe, Federal President of the Australian Education Union, “hope is essential to what we do, in our unions, and for our members. And it is very natural for us as teachers because we have a fundamental belief in a better world – one that our students we go on to create, and one that we hope to shape through them.”

Highlighting the importance of giving youth and women access to leadership opportunities and platforms, Unifah Rosyidi, President of the Persatuan Guru Republik Indonesia, said: “The most important thing is the leadership. I am now very happy because from the grassroots to the top level, so many young women are involved.”

Monika Sharma, Vice-Chairperson of the Women’s Wing of the All India Primary Teachers Federation, emphasised how unionists can benefit most from new opportunities for connectivity that arose since the pandemic. “Because of the sudden shift of education to online platforms, we teachers and student had to learn technology. At first it was a headache for all of us, but now we are taking advantage of it. As unionists, now we are able to organise any meeting, anytime, anywhere, in less time and with no expenditure. With the help of this new knowledge, we are now more comfortable being connected.”

Talking about the large proportion of youth and women at the helm of her union, Tsetsegmaa Gendenjamts, International Secretary of the Federation of Mongolian Education and Science Unions, stressed: “Out of 102 members of our executive board, more than 81% are women and 33% are youth. The Youth Standing Committee has 12 members and among them, five representatives are from secondary schools, three from kindergartens, two from universities and 1 from a rural area.”

Andy Tosasai of the Solomon Island National Teachers Association explained how during his term as president, the union resisted the downward trend in union membership. “The challenge of increasing and maintaining membership is a huge one. This year we have managed to increase the number of members and change the tide. This comes from the strengthening of the networks’ communication systems and recruitment and advocacy. Recruitment is an engagement that must be embraced to achieve increasing membership, regardless of the working environment. Recruitment should focus on the newly employed and young teachers.”

Conference’s resolutions adopted

Seven resolutions were adopted by delegates during the conference:

  1. Resolution on Solidarity with Iranian Teachers, Trade Unionists, and Protests
  2. Resolution on Restrictions on Teachers’ Civil and Political Rights in the Republic of Korea
  3. Resolution to Protect, Defend, and Promote Academic Freedom
  4. Resolution on Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  5. Resolution on Gender Equality: Women in Education and their Unions
  6. Resolution on the conference theme: “Rebuilding the Asia-Pacific: Educators and Their Unions at the Forefront Towards a Sustainable Future”
  7. Resolution on the Climate Crisis

The conference’s work finished with delegates welcoming new members of the EIAP Regional Committee and thanking the outgoing chairperson of the committee, Masaki Okajima, for his contribution and outstanding leadership of the region.

For more information on the conference, click here.