Colombia’s teachers are joining a chorus of sectors threatening to go on strike over Colombia’s government’s alleged failure to honor agreements made after earlier strikes.
In an echo of the coffee workers’ protests in July that spawned the recent chain of civil unrest developing throughout the country, the Federation of Colombian Education Workers (FECODE) organized its Day of National Movilization and Protest last Thursday in response to what it says are unsatisfied obligations on the part of the federal government.
Both the coffee growers and the teachers blame the government of not keeping promises made to end earlier strikes.
In an interview with Colombia Reports, FECODE Secretary General Rafael Cuello Ramirez detailed the issues at stake.
“Last May 21, we signed an act of agreement with the Education Ministry; those terms, however, have been delayed by the national government, specifically the Minister of Education. We agreed on a text, and it was written, but the spirit of what was agreed to hasn’t come to fruition.”
The most blaring inconsistency has to do with the State’s allegedly continued delinquency on the sizable debts it owes its education employees.
“Today, the [Education] Ministry’s debt to retired pension and benefits funds exceeds $40 billion…we’re asking the government to open up just $1.7 billion in the budget it is supposed to pass October 31 to go toward the amortization of its debt.”
One of the more pressing concerns for FECODE regarding the government’s faulty debt payments is the financial welfare of education employees whose contracts have been terminated, in many cases because of cost-cutting measures.
“Right now we have been notified of 15,000 severances but do not have the money to pay any of the teachers [their severance packages].”
A larger problem, however, is the “gross inadequacy” of health benefits in the education sector.
“They take 8.5% of our salaries off the top to pay for health care. Apart from that, the government is supposed to pay the equivalent as what is called the ‘management contribution’, but so far, the government hasn’t directed any of the corresponding money to us.” Accordingly, “FECODE’s national benefits fund, which pays for our health services, is living solely off of education employees’ salaries.” That “education employees are the only public servants” who have been denied the twice-yearly bonuses they are guaranteed in the Colombian constitution, only exacerbates the increasingly wide gap between the government’s responsibilities and its commitment to fulfilling them.
Another perhaps more immediately important guarantee from the government has been just as elusive as the health payments.
In May, FECODE and the government agreed on the terms of an as-of-yet nonexistent decree that would regulate the transfer of teachers who have been threatened or displaced in what has been a grave problem facing Colombia’s educators.
“It’s been truly torturous,” said Ramirez, “another teacher was killed [since May 21st] and they still haven’t produced the decree. It’s been through a thousand spins around political circles, and it’s still not ready.”
“We gave our support for the peace process with the FARC in Havana, and we would give it so that one could begin with the ELN, as well, but that will not suffice for this country; there will not be a complete peace as long as there isn’t a guarantee of labor and education rights in Colombia.”
To that end, Ramirez indicated that the teachers could very likely join the massive protests scheduled for August 19th between workers in the coffee, trucking, mining, engineering, health care and student sectors.
An Executive Committee meeting this Tuesday will, Ramirez stated, arrange for a national gathering of the presidents of all the various education unions. “If things stay the way they are, the national assembly will vote for a ‘zero hour’ and install a national committee” so that, on August 21st — the originally stated date for revaluation of the May 21st agreements – the education sector can convene an “indefinite strike until there is a structural solution to the situation.”