Stabroek News

Gov’t, teachers still haggling over arbitration terms

Mark Lyte

A meeting between the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) and the Ministry of Education (MoE) to craft Terms of Reference (ToR) for an arbitration panel ended with no ToR being signed but a “feasible timeline” being set.

GTU President Mark Lyte told reporters after the meeting at the Department of Labour that the Ministry has agreed to work with a shorter timeline than the two months proposed by the union.

He added that a full ToR was not agreed to because the union was concerned about two clauses proposed by the Ministry.

According to Lyte the union found these clauses a ‘bit loose’ and believes they need to be further tightened for the Tribunal to have a clear idea of what they are deciding.

The main area of concern appears to be government’s intention to arbitrate a 2018 agreement while the union continues to advocate for a 2016-2020 multi-year agreement. Also concerning is what would constitute evidence on which the tribunal can base it decisions.

 “The union is saying that we have to look at the history …what obtained prior to this year’s agreement… and also indicate what the evidence should include that will be brought to the table,” Lyte explained.

He noted that he and his team will return to the union’s members for direction ahead of a meeting scheduled for Friday at which the ToR will be finalized and members of the panel identified.

Since 2015, the union has been attempting to negotiate a multi-year salary and non-salary benefit package with the APNU+AFC government but negotiations have dragged on. An October, 2017 breakdown in negotiations and a declaration by the union that its members would proceed on strike led to an intervention by President David Granger, who set up a High Level Task Force to continue negotiations and reach a consensus.

The Task Force met for five months and recommended that Cabinet consider granting teachers a 40% increase on 2015 salaries and a 5% increase for each of the four remaining years of the agreement. However, citing the high cost of the recommended increase, $4 billion for teachers and $10 billion if extended to all public servants, the administration rejected the report of the Task Force as deficient.

Teachers were instead offered a $700 million ball park figure for 2018 salary increases. This was rejected and the GTU decided to engage in strike action beginning in the pre-term on August 27th.

The strike action gained momentum on the first day of the school year with thousands of teachers withdrawing their services and taking to the streets to protest this week, while the MoE implemented a contingency plan which saw student-teachers, retired teachers and volunteers take to the classrooms.

However, with the number of teachers engaged in strike action increasing every day, the Ministry on Wednesday signaled its intention to agree to the union’s demand to proceed to arbitration and the two parties met last Thursday.

The MoE had previously sought to have the dispute conciliated by the Department of Labour but the union pushed for arbitration, arguing that both the Minister responsible for Labour, Keith Scott, and the Chief Labour Officer Charles Ogle had compromised their ability to act as conciliators by sitting at the negotiation table on behalf of government.

Following the agreement to end the strike, teachers were expected to return to the classroom Friday, with full resumption slated for last Monday.

The terms signed on to by the parties to the dispute for resumption indicated that there would be no victimisation by either side, no loss of pay and seniority, and the status quo ante, that is, the conditions in relation to wages, salaries and non-salary benefits which existed before the strike, would prevail.

Most importantly, the terms indicate that within 24 hours after full resumption the parties will meet to determine the terms of reference for the Arbitration Panel, as guided by the 1990 Memorandum of Agreement between the MoE and the GTU.

Asked to explain the parameters of the dispute which the parties will take to the panel, Lyte noted yesterday that it will include all financial aspects of the GTU’s 2016-2020 multi-year proposal. These include outstanding salary matters, de-bunching due to the union since 2011, uniform allowance and other allowances.

He opined that the panel will take a neutral look at what the economy can afford and offer what is needed by teachers to have a livable wage.

Lyte had also indicated that he hoped the process to establish the panel was not drawn out.

Asked why the union did not push to have the ToR for the arbitration panel drafted before calling off the countrywide strike by teachers on Thursday, he noted that given the amount of time taken to settle of the Terms of Resumption, nearly four hours, they “thought it would be prudent to come back later for arbitration ToR.”