Teachers dig their heels in over dollars

BULAWAYO, (IRIN) – Zimbabwe's striking teachers have rejected an appeal by new Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai that they return to work, demanding negotiations on their salary scales in foreign currency as promised.

"Teachers want money in their pockets, not promises," said Sifiso Ndlovu, acting head of the Zimbabwe Teachers Association. "He [Tsvangirai] should explain how much we are going to be paid, and the mode of payment."

Tsvangirai told a rally on 11 February, the day he was sworn in as part of a new power-sharing government, that public workers would all be paid in foreign currency, and urged those on strike to report for duty on 16 February.

"Tsvangirai has to consult President [Robert] Mugabe and cabinet on the payment of salaries in foreign currency, and once he has done that, then he should table a figure that he will discuss with us teachers," Ndlovu said.

Zimbabwe’s teachers, on strike since September last year, are demanding salaries starting at US$2,200 as a result of the semi-official dollarisation of the economy.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) last week reported that about 94 percent of rural schools failed to open at the start of the 2009 academic year.

A broke Zimbabwe is in the grip of an unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis marked by the world’s highest inflation rate, food shortages, and a cholera epidemic that has infected more than 70,000 people and killed over 3,500.

Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change party, which is now part of a unity government with Mugabe’s rival ZANU-PF, has admitted he does not yet know where the foreign exchange will come from to pay public workers at the end of the month.

"But I have made a commitment, and we have to find the money to pay them. But how much, it still hasn’t been decided," he said. "We must find something to alleviate the plight of our people who have been receiving worthless currency."

The militant Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe said almost half the country’s teachers have crossed the border to South Africa, Botswana or further abroad looking for work, even if they are