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January 22, 2019

Hidden costs of ongoing nationwide teachers' strike

On Monday, the chairman of the Kenya Publishers Association, David Waweru, called for sobriety and a quick solution to the current teachers strike, now in its fourth week. As a key stakeholder in education, KPA is wary that continued closure of schools is not the solution to the current standoff. Waweru wondered how pupils in classes one to seven and form one to three will transit to the next grade without instruction for a whole term. Certainly, the KPA would wish to see normalcy quickly so that they can plan for supplying new set books and other instructional materials come the New Year. The association was the first institutional voice to raise concern over the imminent loss of business opportunities occasioned by the teachers strike.

Early this week, a section of the print media carried a harrowing news item that Unison Sacco, formerly Laikipia teachers’ Sacco, has suspended issuing of loans to its members due to the uncertainty of their continued pay by the Teachers Service Commission. This development begs the question: supposing all the members of this and other teachers Saccos get into a panic mode and demand their shares back to support themselves in the uncertain months ahead that the strike may drag? In such a scenario we would be staring at the near collapse of the co-operative movement; many teachers Saccos countrywide have incorporated other members outside the profession.

Certainly, other financial institutions are keenly studying the developments in the current crisis in the education sector. Of great concern to them is the number of months that teachers with loans with them are likely to go without pay. The legality or otherwise of whom between the borrower (teachers) and the employer (TSC) takes sole responsibility of remitting the loan repayment installments under the check-off system may be the topic of the next wave of court battles. Consequently, the major financial institutions will most likely redraft their loan agreements after this strike to factor in the scenario of protracted labour disputes in future. But of immediate legal and moral concern is the possibility of commercial banks blacklisting thousands of teachers to the Credit Reference Bureaus when the TSC doesn’t remit loan repayment installments, should the strike drag on for months. It’s instructive that blacklisted people don’t qualify for phone recharge credit, future financial facilities and even holding of public jobs and offices. This would be the ultimate and unforeseen loss for striking teachers with loans and whose number, at a conservative estimate, may stand at 150,000.

Similar business concerns are being expressed by all manner of enterprises countrywide whose business models are associated with the school environment. In fact, many entrepreneurs are counting their losses over the last one month of school closure. Isaac Kamau, a Nakuru photographer and success cards retailer, estimates that his Sh200,000 stock of cards will not sell this year. “I have been asking discreetly whether or not the schools I have always been doing business with will hold prayers for candidates this year,” he says. And the answers are bleak. “Apparently, most of the schools have cancelled the prayers day or will hold low key functions,” he says.

An employee of one branch of the postal corporation reveals that this time their sales of postage stamps are at all time low. Normally, the sending of success cards picks from late September and goes on through to November. But this season, its only a trickling of cards coming through.

But as losses come due to the teachers’ strike, nowhere are they more noticeable than in small rural towns that are homes to large public schools. Suddenly suppliers of foodstuffs, building materials, stationary, fuel and motor vehicle spare parts have to contend with low business. Local hotels and pubs that are frequented by teachers are feeling the heat of low customer turnout. The trickle-down effect has been felt by local milk men, mama mboga and hordes of casuals who do household chores at the teachers’ homes as the tutors are cutting down on unnecessary expenses. And without pupils in full capacity, many schools have scaled down on the casuals they hire to do odd jobs and routine maintenance. This translates to hardships in many families.

Matatu operators in both rural and urban areas who ferry thousands of teachers and pupils to and from school daily are also feeling the heat. For the last three weeks, they have literally been operating at half capacity especially in the morning and evening rush hours. Boda boda riders too are complaining of lost revenue especially in many rural areas where they carry teachers and pupils to and from schools in tough terrain. And in most homes, the children are home again just weeks after the August holiday.

The food, water and power bills are counting, in addition to paying fees for the third term which is in limbo. All these costs amount to millions of shillings and the sooner this impasse is resolved the better for all of us.

Kariuki teaches at Nyandarua high school, Ol Kalou.

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