Education workers on Wednesday said that they will be forced to go ahead with their planned national strike beginning September 10, which would effectively close schools across Colombia, if the government does not agree to their demands by Thursday.
In an interview with Colombia Reports, Rafael Cuello Ramirez, Secretary General of Colombia’s national teachers union (FECODE) said the negotiating team for the national education sector refuse to play games with the government any longer.
“The ministers [of Education, Labor and Education] are wasting our time,” he said, “and we have been telling ourselves from the start [of negotiations last week] we are not going to let them play this game with us again.”
Given that promises made to end a previous protest campaign earlier this year have gone as of yet unfulfilled, said Cuello, the FECODE is weary of being dragged into more prolonged negotiations until the “government shows it is serious”.
“We have all the willingness in the world to negotiate,” he said, “but we don’t have the patience to sit there while the government pulls our leg.”
According to Cuello, even after narrowing its negotiating platform to two main issues, the FECODE has yet to see any corresponding desire to compromise from the government.
The main issue continues to be the outstanding debt owed to education workers’ in backpay and unpaid benefits and pensions, some of which dates back as far back as 2002. According to FECODE’s most recent calculations, the government owes education workers more than $40 billion, with over 31,000 payment petitions pending on behalf of individual workers.
“The Ministry of Finance says there’s no money to pay the debt […] but there’s money for war, there’s money for corruption, there’s money for everything, except education […] If there’s no money, then fine, but we as teachers are not going to continue to work without what we’re owed.”
Also on the table is the related problem of unpaid health benefits.
Currently, 8.5% of public education employees’ salaries goes toward paying for their healthcare. In theory, an equivalent amount is supposed to be paid by the government, through semi-private intermediary healthcare providers (EPSes). According to the FECODE, however, the payments haven’t been coming, and have been late or insufficient when they have, leaving the teachers’ health fund insolvent as it tries to cover the entire education sector with only half the necessary resources.
The non-functioning healthcare payment program, said Cuello, “only exacerbates the debt issue,” and government negotiators have been equally inflexible regarding proposed changes to the system.
“[Tuesday],” he said, “we were in negotiations from 9 in the morning, to 7 at night. [Wednesday] it will be the same. They know what we are asking for, because we have been asking for the same thing for over a year now. It’s up to them to agree to a solution.
“First we will discuss the debt. If there is still no money, we will move on to the second point. If they don’t want to change the healthcare problem, we will talk about the agreements we made in May [when the last protests ended]. If they don’t want to honor their agreement, then we have nothing to talk about, and they are wasting our time.”
“If there is no progress by [Thursday],” he said, “we are going to walk out of this farce, and there will be a national strike, as we announced, starting September 10th.”
Regional organizers, he said, “are already agitating the strikes in their territories. We are ready. We’ve been ready. This is the option the government has left us, and we’ve considered it thoroughly.”
Barring a sudden shift in position from the government, he said, every public school in Colombia will close indefinitely starting next Tuesday.
- Interview with Rafael Cuello Ramirez