Fringe benefits could stem teacher exodus -union head By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
June 14, 2004

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Even if the government cannot pay teachers their due in cash, President of the Guyana Teachers' Union, Avril Crawford expects the government to give teachers fringe benefits and incentives to keep them in the local education system.

Crawford, the first woman to hold the presidency of the GTU in 20 years and the third in more than a century, told Stabroek News that the government failed to capitalise on housing for teachers to improve their lot. They left them to fend for themselves as individuals instead of assisting them through the union as promised.

Though she feels honoured to hold the post, she was, however, concerned about the manner in which she came to office. Her predecessors, Bertram Hamilton and Sydney Murdock died within a year of each other. "There was no warning of demitting office. There was no handing over", she said.

However, she feels they have left a foundation on which the executive of the union could build and the union would not deviate from that path. That is "where the government sees teachers as valuable human resources and offers them liveable wages."

She says the majority of teachers have to work at second jobs to earn their daily bread. "They are unable to use their salaries to make ends meet. They have to battle with other workers for their space and they no longer get that respect they enjoyed previously. Long ago teachers could have lived off the salary they earned. They were respected as community leaders and their opinions were sought after. Fringe benefits like housing would help to keep teachers from migrating to other countries or for better paying jobs. Teachers leaving in batches for greener pastures is not fair for the country which invests heavily in teachers' training."

Crawford said the only satisfaction that teachers get out of the profession is seeing their students excel and become qualified in various professions and that might be the main reason why they choose to stay in Guyana.

Recalling that housing was one incentive the government had touted for improving the lot of teachers, Crawford said that at first the teachers applied on Ministry of Housing forms sent to them by the Ministry of Education. The forms were submitted through the Ministry of Education but the ministry has since claimed they could not be found. For teachers to go through the regular process, she said, would mean that they would have to do that during school hours when they should be teaching the children. A few teachers, who were determined to get house lots, went through the process but they were in the minority. Others, on the other hand are seeking a way out of the country.

Proud to be recognised by the teaching fraternity who placed her in the office, Crawford served as General Secretary for the union for two years. Before that she was the Regional Vice President for Demerara for four years and prior to that was an Executive Committee representative and a member of the General Council. Her union activities started as chairman for the GTU Plaisance Branch.

Currently the Vice Chair-man of the GTU's Women's Advisory Committee (WAC), Crawford also served as chairman of the Women's Advisory Committee for six years. She has been the head teacher of St Winefride's Secondary since 1996.

Crawford feels she has taken over the reins of the union at a critical juncture when relations with the government are strained because of salary impositions and what she says is the government reneging on its promises to improve working conditions for teachers.

Stating that she does not like the manner in which the government treats trade unions and the labour force, she contends that the GTU was still a force to reckon with and she is optimistic that the government would see a way to help the teachers.

On the current salary negotiations, Crawford said that she does not see the government deviating from its 3% per cent offer unless pressured.

The current proposals are for increases of 5% for teachers in the lowest category; 10% for the middle category and 15% for the senior teachers. The teachers in the middle and highest categories are the backbone of the profession, she said and the increases were being used to encourage the acting teachers to get themselves qualified. "We are concerned about teachers' qualifications because the academic achievement of children is based on teacher performance which in turn is based on the kind of remuneration they get and working conditions they experience."

Noting that the profession is currently female-dominated, she said that some of the disciplinary problems being experienced in schools might be due to the absence of male counterparts. She feels that one of the reasons why males are not seeking out the profession is because of the poor salaries.

On its membership, Crawford said that the union is open to teachers from the private schools. "The Minis-try of Education has opened its doors to private schools and the same goes for the GTU," she said, noting they were welcome to become members once they fill out application forms and pay their dues. "It is not only a matter of salaries but teachers can benefit from further training opportunities, seminars, conferences and sports held locally and internationally by training institutions and teaching fraternities."

She said it was sad to know that taxpayers have to pay for private schools to ensure that their children get a decent education because they do not have confidence in the government providing that education. "What about those who cannot afford to pay for their children's education?" she also asks.

Crawford attributes her success, to among others, Women Across Differences, Education International to which the GTU is affiliated, the Women's Advisory Committee, past President Lance Baptiste who introduced her to trade unionism; and the late GTU president Hamilton who gave her a wake up call when as General Secretary she wanted to resign. He told her "What! If you do that I'd rather terminate my services and go and plant ochroes."