Education pay reform triggers teachers’ strikes across China

By Jennifer Cheung

Attempts by local governments in China to change the way high school teachers are paid have resulted in an upsurge in strikes and protests by teachers over the last two months.

Since last December, school teachers in Wuhan, Hubei, Guizhou, Zhejiang and Henan have protested the cancelation of bonuses or demanded pay increases. In January alone, CLB has recorded at least ten strikes and protests by teachers across the country. See CLB’s strike map for specific incidences.

Many of these protests were related to moves by the government to reform its public institutions (事业单位). These reforms were initially launched in 2009 but are only now being rolled out in the country’s high schools. The first phase of reform covered compulsory education institutions (primary and middle schools), the second phase focused on public health institutions, while the third phase, which will affect all the other public institutions, including high schools, started to be implemented in the second half of 2012.

Teachers at the renowned Hefeng School in Zhuhai, for example, first heard about the proposed salary reform in August last year. They tried to file their complaints with the school principal but the local education department refused to discuss the issue with them. Then on 26 December, the school unilaterally announced that henceforth 30 percent of the teachers’ salary would be deducted and only paid on the basis of their performance. In response, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported, around 200 teachers went out on strike.

Teachers said that currently, after the deduction of social insurance and housing provident fund payments, their take home pay was only 3,800 yuan per month. If a further 30 percent was deducted, they said, that would create a serious burden.

A Zhuhai government spokesperson said the reform was necessary because under the current system, senior teachers with a comfortable salary had no incentive seek promotion or take on more courses, while young teachers were always underpaid regardless of how hard they worked.

“The reform must be carried out. Teachers’ typical thinking of a fixed salary or iron rice bowl is no longer in keeping with the times. The reforms will only hurt the interests of those who don’t work hard,” the spokesperson said.

However, the teachers mocked the proposed reform, saying it would “use our own money to reward ourselves.”

High school teachers in China are almost certainly aware of how salary reforms have been implemented in many primary and middle schools across the country, especially in poorer regions of China where local governments have alleged that they do not have sufficient funds to pay additional performance-related bonuses. As a result, a proportion of the teachers’ salaries was deducted and reclassified as a bonus. This led to protests by primary and middle school teachers in Henan, Hunan, Jiangsu, and Guangdong.

The latest outburst of teachers’ strikes and protests across China illustrates not only the heightened awareness of education workers of their rights and their determination to fight for a better deal, but also the lack of an efficient teacher/government consultation mechanism during the launch of new education policies.

In Hefeng, for example, it was only after the teachers went on strike, affecting the studies of students preparing for the crucial university entrance exam, that the local education department started to take their complaints seriously.

Following the strike, Hefeng principal, Sun Zhongqin, said the reform policy was still under discussion and had not yet been officially implemented. The local education department also said it would listen to teachers’ opinions and make relevant adjustments.

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