KAMPALA – In a letter dated 22nd June, 2022, the Ministry of Public Service has written a threatening letter to the Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU) asking them to ensure their members return to the classroom within two days.
In that letter, the Ministry has ordered all Government employed Teachers to resume work or be fired for among others absconding from duty and insubordination. The letter comes against a backdrop UNATU met with the President Yoweri Museveni in the presence of other senior government officials to express their discontent and the matter handed over to the Ministry of Public Service and Finance Ministry to review the proposed pay plan and ensure that their pay is enhanced like that of science teachers.
It is now in black and white; any government-employed teacher who does not comply with the order of the Ministry of Public Service will be regarded as having abandoned duty and resigned from the public service.
think the ministry of Public Service has forgotten that the majority of these teachers were employed before the amendment of the Uganda Public service standing orders 2021. But what is illegal about industrial action. The decision by Government directing teachers to resume work is as bad remaining in class while others are on a sit down strike.
Labour unions are organisations of workers created by workers to represent their rights and interests. The Constitution of Uganda provides for freedom of association while the Labor Unions Act allows workers to establish and join unions. Workers are allowed to participate in union activities outside working hours. Every worker has a right to form or join a trade union of his or her choice for the promotion and protection of his or her economic and social interests; to collective bargaining and representation; and to withdraw his or her labour according to law. This is the spirit behind Articles 29 and 40 of the Constitution of Uganda 1995 and Sections 2-18 of the Labour Union Act 2006.The law of Uganda therefore allow workers to bargain collectively through their representatives and to take actions such as sit down strikes.
Article 40 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995 provides for economic rights. This article seeks to protect labour rights in Uganda. In Particular, Clause (1) (a) provides for the right of persons to work under satisfactory, safe and healthy conditions. Objective XIV (b) provides that the state shall endeavor to fulfill the fundamental rights of all Ugandans to social justice and economic development and shall in particular, ensure that – all development efforts re directed at ensuring the maximum social and cultural wellbeing of the people; and all Ugandans enjoy rights and opportunities including equal payment for equal work without discrimination as was buttressed in Christopher Madrama V AG Constitutional Appeal No.01 of 2016.
According to the Labour Union Act, strike means to ‘go slow’ and ‘a sit down’ by a body of persons employed and acting in combination or a concerted refusal or a refusal under a common understanding, of any number of persons employed to continue to work for an employer in consequence of a dispute, done as a means of compelling the employer, or to aid other workers, to accept or not to accept terms or conditions affecting the employment. Worker have the right to organise themselves in any labour union and may withdraw their labour and take industrial action. There is a compulsory 30-day mediation period before lawful strike action may be taken.
However, strikers must not threaten non-strikers. Strikers cannot stop other employees who want to go to work during a strike from doing so. Ugandan law maintains a list of essential services where strike action is prohibited without written notice given to the employer, not earlier than 14 days and not later than 22 days from the intended strike. The Labour Disputes (Arbitration and Settlement) Act requires employers not to take civil action against the strikers.
A reading of the Ministry of public service letter to UNATU seems to insinuate that it is only arts teachers who are on strike but the reality on the ground is that some science teachers are part of the sit-down strike having been fed on empty promises over the years that their salaries would be increased. It appears the past unfulfilled promises are to blame for the mistrust. The ever increasing commodity prices have left all teachers with no option but to put their demands on the table. Many of these teachers also have children and with a fear that schools will increase fees next in the name of escalating prices, everyone must be seen to fight for their plight. With this at the back of their minds, laying down their tools is the only language government will understand.
The confidence with which the permanent secretary wrote her letter to UNATU is that of a person who has seen an exploitable loophole in the current industrial action. At the back of their minds, the ministries of public service and education are aware that replacing teachers especially those teaching secondary classes is not an easy task that can be decided over night. It therefore remains a threat which teachers should exploit to have their grievances addressed. From a legal perspective, I personally think UNATU did not follow procedure to call upon its members for industrial action but who cares; how many illegal actions have been undertaken in this country and changed the narrative; teachers may be right in their own right.
The reason for the strike by arts teachers is that a degree holding arts teacher will continue earning a gross salary of about shs1,080,000/= while a secondary school diploma arts teacher will retain a monthly salary of Ug.shs.795,000/=. On the other hand, the new government salary structure will elevate a degree holding secondary school science teacher from a monthly salary of shs1,080,000/= to shs 4 million while a diploma science teacher who has been getting 950,000/= will earn Shs 3million. No doubt this is what they call indirect discrimination and no right thinking person will blame arts teachers for striking.
The Ministry of Public Services must have read a precedent where the Industrial Court of declared as illegal a strike by the teaching staff at Makerere University, saying that their sit down strike did not comply with the set legal procedures of notifying their employer of their intended industrial action. According to the ruling by the Kampala Capital City Authority, Kawempe Division Labour Officer, Ruth Kulabako, the instituted disciplinary proceedings by the Makerere against the complainants was justified and claims of discrimination lacked merit.
The labour officer made her ruling based on Section 4 (d) of the Labour Disputes (Arbitration and Settlement) Act 2006, where a complaint against Makerere University for violation of the claimant’s rights was rejected since the disciplinary proceedings instituted were found to be lawful. The decision was premised on the grounds that Makerere University Council, the employer of the complainants had not been served with a formal notification of an intended industrial action which would include details of a breach by the employer of employment terms in the employment contract and a demand to rectify within a time stipulated under the law.
According to the Ministry of Public Service, the strike is illegal and contravenes several provisions of the law. She made reference to sections7(2)(a) and (b); and 8(1) and (3) and the public service negotiating, consultative and Disputes Settlement Machinery Act, 2008 and the Recognition Agreement signed under this act because neither has UNATU given a notice to strike nor had the dispute Settlement Machinery been exhausted. She rubbished the claim that the strike had been ongoing since 2019 and as such there was no need for a new notice. On the contrary, I think the notice is a mandatory requirement which cannot be dispensed with.
In all fairness, UNATU did not opt for industrial action because they were against salary enhancement in favor of science teachers but because the proposal which may never come to pass is segregative against those teaching arts subjects. In other words, the union is informing Government that arts teachers are as important as those teaching sciences and should be accorded equal treatment.
Fortunately, the reaction of Government so far in demanding the striking teachers to resume work is an admission that they- art teachers are vital and cannot be ignored. Otherwise, the decision by arts teachers to go on a sit down strike should have been treated by Government as a missed call.
The Government needs to be reminded that by the time a student opts for arts or sciences at advanced level, they must have been taught both disciplines to give them an informed choice.
The Government of Uganda has not come out openly to explain why they had to increase the salaries of science teacher, was it because science teachers spend more time in class, is it because science teachers took a longer time at university than their arts counterparts, was the decision taken to encourage science teachers not to export their labour out of the country or the reason was to encourage the teaching of science subjects in Uganda.
I have said it over and over again that a good science teacher will not promote sciences so long as there are no materials as well as well-equipped science facilities in schools. Besides, the love for science subjects at times begins with the primary school where somebody studied. No wonder the majority of scientists in this country can confirm they had a good laboratory and were exposed to practicals.
Secondly, if the President wants to promote sciences, it is the curriculum that should change as well as mind set. We could also consider encouraging technical institutions and not useless universities where our scholars study courses like electrical engineering only to come out and cannot even connect a bulb to a lump holder.
We all know that teachers in many Government schools are employed by the Ministry of Public Service through the Ministry of education. In other words, their direct supervisor is the Ministry if education and not Public Service.
While did the Ministry of Education delegate their mandate to Public Service. Infact it is the Mnistry of Education with the mandate to hire and fire teachers found to have breached their terms of engagement and those standards do not include industrial action. To threaten somebody with losing their job just because they have respected the decision of their umbrella body is to abuse the law that allows industrial action.
If UNATU decided to ask their members to go back to the blackboard will be a good but to back out at this time because of the government threat to fire teachers is such a bad precedent that the can be exploited to defeat the very purpose for which labour unions are formed. My only fear is that students may also consider going for a strike to protest their teachers strike and before we know it parents may also consider going for a strike having paid school fees for this term.
Mr. Roger Wadada Musaalo is a Lawyer, human rights activist, researcher, and politician