Iraqi Kurdistan teachers' strike continues amidst unresolved salary issues
In the Iraqi Kurdistan region, the current school year is hanging in the balance as public sector teachers in Sulaimaniyah and Halabja provinces and surrounding areas continue to boycott classes since mid-September due to unpaid salaries.
While Erbil and Duhok provinces are unaffected, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) faces criticism for failing to address the financial concerns of teachers and public sector employees who have yet to receive their salaries for October 2023. On Thursday, doctors also threatened to start boycotting public clinics if they were not paid regularly.
The first season passed in Sulaimaniyah and Halabja, and nearly 700,000 Kurdish pupils from the kindergarten stage up to the 11th stage have not attended a single lesson, with the KRG officials having no clear plans for tackling the school year.
This week the KRG has decided that teachers should resume classes as of Tuesday, otherwise they would face administrative punishments. However, the teachers refused to break their strikes until the KRG fulfilled their main demands: receiving their monthly salaries on time, the KRG to resume pay raises, and employing non-permanent teachers.
The KRG Minister of Education, Alan Hama Saed, on January 7, in a formal document, promised to fulfil two demands out of four by the boycotting teachers. The minister has pledged to resume pay raises to the teachers if the Iraqi parliament agrees to amend Kurdistan's share from Iraq's budget for this year. The Iraqi parliament is expected to debate the amendment by next month.
Over 35,000 non-permanent teachers, paid 400,000 Iraqi dinars per month (about US$250) for teaching in rural areas and districts, have also boycotted the classes. Their demand is to be employed as permanent teachers. However, Hama Saed only promised to employ them as temporary contractors.
On Monday, thousands of teachers took to the streets again in Sulaimaniyah city, Halabja city, Rania district, and other towns. They refused the promises by the KRG education minister and asked for his immediate resignation from his post.
"We will not break our strikes until we are permanently employed by the KRG. We have been asking this for the past ten years, but unfortunately, our demand has not been met yet," Bestun Aziz, a non-permanent teacher, told The New Arab at the protest.
TNA has visited some schools, and only a few teachers and pupils returned to the schools.
TNA also contacted Saman Siwaili, spokesperson of the KRG Ministry of Education, but he refused to speak for the press.
Many people in the Iraqi Kurdistan region say that the Kurdish ruling parties have politicized the teachers' strikes for their political ends.
An alliance of three ruling Kurdish parties takes part in the KRG - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Movement of Change (Gorran).
While the Barzani family's KDP dominates Erbil and Duhok provinces, PUK runs Sulaimaniyah and Halabja. Both rival parties disagree on how to run the Kurdistan region and how the region's issues should be resolved in Baghdad. Locals accuse the ruling parties of "stealing" local revenues obtained from customs and smuggling oil to Iran and Turkey via tankers.
Bakhtyar Muhamed, a teacher with a Master's degree from Newcastle University, told TNA that the KRG has prioritized private-sector schools unaffected by the boycotts over public-sector education. He also indicated that the KRG has neglected the public education sector since 1992, and the current issues are clear outcomes of the neglect and corruption by the KRG authorities.
The autonomous government of Iraqi Kurdistan has frozen and halted pay rises to all public sector employees since 2016, when oil prices plummeted, and Kurdish fighters were battling the Islamic State group 2016 without approval from the region's parliament.
However, the KRG has recently resumed pay raises to Kurdish security, Peshmerga forces, and judges. Nearly 1.5 million people are on the KRG public sector payroll.
In June, Iraq's parliament approved a three-year budget bill of nearly 198.9 trillion dinars (US$153 billion), the largest in the country's history.
According to the law, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region must first deliver 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) to the federal authorities, along with half of the non-oil revenues, before receiving a share of 12.6 per cent of the federal budget.
The KRG has said it needs 940 billion Iraqi dinars (US$602 million) to pay monthly salaries to over 1,200,000 civil servants but cannot do so if Baghdad does not regularly send its share from the budget.
While KRG officials stress they have fulfilled their obligations under the budget law, Iraq has not sent its share from the federal budget, thus preventing the payment of KRG employees. Iraqi officials say Erbil has not fully abided by the law.