The Kenyan national government could use Rahm Emmanuel’s advice right now.
The Chicago mayor just presided over the resolution of a week-long strike that saw more than 26,000 educational staffers abstain from work. While students enjoyed a prolonged summer vacation, Emmanuel and his administration worked with teachers unions to negotiate a slight pay raise and better evaluation methods, in exchange for reductions in perks like layoff benefits and holidays.
But in Kenya, a strike of about 200,000 teachers demanding higher wages has not reached a resolution. Things kicked into high gear on Thursday, with the government threatening to fire all demonstrators. This comes a day after the Kenya National Union of Teachers refused an offer of 13.4 billion Kenyan shillings, or about US$158 million, which would have translated into a raise of less than 4 percent.
The educators on strike are demanding increases of up to 300 percent.
That figure would sound unrealistic to Emmanuel, but context is key. Kenya’s teachers have plenty to complain about. Inadequate pay is the token issue, but governmental inefficacy is the broader problem.
Chicago politicians are rumored to be a corrupt bunch, but Kenyan officials put them to shame. Endemic corruption may have cost the Nairobi government a whopping one-third of its national budget in recent years, according to the BBC. The problem has had real negative effects upon the population, leading to widespread to inequality with yawning disparities between the haves and the have-nots.
The teachers’ strike is just one of many ways the Kenyan public is fighting to empower itself. Unfortunately, it’s an uphill battle. Unemployment in Kenya stands at 40 percent. A full 46 percent of the population are living on earnings of $1 per day or less.
But there is some good news. National GDP is over $33 billion, giving Kenya the largest economy in East Africa. And Nairobi has some benefits over Chicago; the price of goods and accommodation in Kenya generally ranges from one-fourth to one-half the price of goods in the United States.
Still, local purchasing power is very low because Kenyan salaries have not kept up with a steadily rising cost of living over the past few years. A price of a loaf of bread has risen to about $0.60 in Nairobi, which doesn’t sound bad considering you might pay $2 in Chicago. But the equation changes when you consider that the average school teacher in Nairobi earns less than $10,000 a year, while the average Chicagoan educator took home $76,000 plus benefits, even before the strike was resolved.
Trade union boss Francis Atwoli complained about poor salaries as he blasted the government’s threat to fire striking workers.
“This is a joke from the government… If you try to sack teachers, Kenya will not be accepted anywhere in the world,” Atwoli said to Capital FM, a Nairobi news outlet.
“Our salary cannot take us up to the end of the month... we live in communal houses where the son or daughter of someone who has been paid walks by your child [carrying] meat. [Your child] then comes to you and asks you why you are not eating meat, it is only 'mboga' [vegetables] everyday!"
But Finance Minister Njeru Githae argued that the national economy was too fragile to sustain a prolonged teacher strike or a massive raise, and that borrowing would be the only way to fund the proposed salary increases.
On Friday, he conducted a meeting with teachers unions’ leaders to communicate his concerns, and his comments following the talk indicate that an agreement may be coming soon.
“[The unions] know our position… we know where they are coming from and we have understood their fears so we took that into consideration,” he said, according to Capital FM, adding that he hoped to reach a deal on Saturday and get kids back in school as early as next week.
But comments from demonstrators on the same day show that both sides will head into Saturday negotiations with their dukes up.
“I want to tell teachers that the strike is still on and is far from over. Let them stay put until the government will listen to us,” said union leader Wilson Sossion on Friday.
If both sides can come to an agreement, thousands of students in Nairobi might join their Chicago counterparts in sitting down for public school lessons on Monday morning.