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Harare - Many Zimbabwean teachers at government schools took part in a strike on Tuesday, demanding a salary increase of more than 50 per cent on what should have been the first school day of 2012.
“We are not teaching as we are hungry,” said one teacher at a primary school in Highfield, a suburb south-west of Harare.
No official figures on those taking part were immediately available though one of the two main teachers unions said all of its members were taking part while a dpa reporter estimated that more than half the capital's teachers stayed away from work.
In an effort to settle the dispute, the government has called for a meeting on Wednesday with the teachers' representatives.
The teachers, who on average earn about 300 dollars a month, want an increase to around 540 dollars. The unions say they will otherwise be living in poverty.
“The government has money. Where are the diamonds dividends going? Ministers and senior government (officials) are busy driving (the) latest models of cars while teachers suffer,” said Raymond Majongwe, the secretary-general of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe.
Majongwe was referring to recent government sales of precious stones from the Marange diamond fields.
Those fields were removed in 2011 from the restricted list of the Kimberly Process - an international mechanism meant to prevent profiteering from blood diamonds - giving the government a new source of revenue.
But Finance Minister Tendai Biti has repeatedly said that the government's wage bill is too large to give civil servants a pay rise.
The education sector in Zimbabwe was once the pride of the nation and was seen as an example for other developing countries. But like other sectors, schooling has been in decline over much of the past decade, since Zimbabwe's economy went into a tailspin.
Many teachers left the profession - or quit the country altogether to work abroad - citing poor working conditions. Since the formation of a coalition government in February in 2009, the situation has improved somewhat, in part thanks to donations from the international community.
The International Monetary Fund last year said that Zimbabwe, which owes foreign lenders more than 7 billion dollars, could not afford to raise civil servants' salaries as this would lead to arrears on repayments.Author: Columbus Mavhunga - Sapa-dpa