Industrial strife in schools could disrupt exams

‘Where is our agreement?’: More than 10,000 educators fume as sectoral agreement talks stall • Education Minister to meet MUT 

Teachers, LSEs and school management staff, who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity, said talks on their agreement have dragged on for too long
Teachers, LSEs and school management staff, who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity, said talks on their agreement have dragged on for too long

Educators were left fuming after three agreements for different grades within the public sector were sealed last week, while their sectoral agreement remains in abeyance. 

Teachers, LSEs and school management staff, who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity, said talks on their agreement have dragged on for too long. They also expressed frustration because they have no idea what is being discussed. 

“The government announced three new agreements were signed at the start of the public service expo that impacted some 7,000 public sector workers but said nothing about the failure to conclude an agreement that will impact more than 10,000 educators,” a secondary school teacher said. 

The common question among all those who spoke to this newspaper was: “Where is our agreement?” 

The sectoral agreement for educators expired in December 2022 and negotiations have been going on since. Talks between the Malta Union of Teachers and the government appeared to have made some progress earlier this year after a one-day school strike last November. 

Education Minister Clifton Grima had even told MaltaToday last February that it was his intention for the agreement to be sealed within two months. 

Nonetheless, three months later no agreement has been reached with the Malta Union of Teachers declaring a trade dispute and giving the government an ultimatum until Friday 24 May to “seek a resolution” to the impasse. 

 The union declared its mistrust in the Industrial Relations Unit, the government negotiating arm, accusing it of having no will to conclude the agreement in a timely manner. 

The union gave no indication of what it plans to do if the ultimatum lapses amid concerns that industrial strife may disrupt school exams. 

In a tit for tat on Saturday, the MUT and the minister traded accusations over a statement Grima made in which he said the government’s financial proposal would see a newly graduated teacher getting paid €36,000 inclusive of allowances, a €10,000 increase on 2022 levels. 

Sources close to the talks told MaltaToday the €36,000 figure would be reached incrementally by the end of the five-year period covered by the agreement. 

Details so far have been scant. The MUT has not informed its members of its demands with the minister publicly telling the union to reveal what package the government has offered. 

Speaking to MaltaToday on Saturday afternoon, Grima would not divulge what increases the government has proposed but dispelled rumours that increments will be linked to an increase in working hours or higher qualifications. 

He insisted that educators will receive backdated payments to 1 January 2023 and confirmed the extension of a 20-year service allowance currently paid to teachers, to LSEs and Kindergarten educators. 

Grima said that some of the problems flagged by the MUT over the past couple of days had been ironed out in two face-to-face meetings on Wednesday and Thursday after the union declared its mistrust in the government negotiating team. 

The minister confirmed that he will be meeting union officials in the coming week. 

“I am willing to close and remain open to negotiations,” Grima said, adding he had no visibility what industrial action the union would take if the ultimatum lapsed. “Whatever happens, children should not be made to suffer,” he added. 

Educators frustrated by MUT’s secrecy 

Sources close to the talks have told MaltaToday that the government has upped its original financial offer after initial reluctance. 

But there is increasing frustration among educators over the MUT’s lack of transparency with its own members. 

“We went on strike in November not knowing why and today, six months later, we still do not know what our own union is demanding,” an irate primary school teacher told MaltaToday. 

Another teacher lambasted the MUT’s secrecy. “In meetings, they have had with us, union officials have not told us what they are demanding and whenever we ask for details they do not answer. This is a frustrating situation because I do not know to what extent my situation is going to improve and how far away the government is from meeting the demands,” the teacher said. 

A secondary school LSE said it was incomprehensible how the government found money for “everything, including a corrupt hospitals deal” but appears to be “thrifty” with educators. 

“The minister and the Prime Minister speak highly of our job but then fail to put the money where their mouth is,” they said. 

Educators are caught between a rock and a hard place. They know that industrial action may be inevitable but at the same time are concerned it could disrupt primary and secondary school exams, which could serve to anger people against the profession. A teacher expressed concern over the prospect of industrial strife. 

“Unfortunately, the impasse is pushing us towards industrial action but I fear that doing so now will only instigate more hate towards us, especially if it disrupts exams; the situation is unfair on everybody,” they said. 

Earlier this year, MUT President Marco Bonnici had told this newspaper that educators will have a final say on any agreement reached since it will be put to the vote. However, he refused to divulge details insisting no agreement is concluded until everything is agreed, including the financials.