China’s 1993 Teachers’ Law gives school teachers the same status as local civil servants, and a wide range of guarantees designed to protect their income and benefits. However, as with all laws designed to protect the interests of workers in China, the implementation of the Teachers’ Law has been less than thorough on the ground. In rural Chongqing, for example, teachers’ salaries are currently about one third or even one quarter of other government employees.
In late October and early November 2008, primary and middle school teachers from several rural counties and districts in Chongqing staged a series of strikes demanding higher pay. CLB Director Han Dongfang talked to three teachers, including a teachers’ representative who took part in the negotiations with the local government, about teaching conditions in Chongqing, the strikes, and their frustration at the lack of government action.
Han Dongfang’s first interview was with a teacher from Sanhui Primary School in Qijiang County, who did not participate in the strike and preferred not to give his name. This teacher, a 14-year veteran with a salary of just over 1,000 yuan per month, said that although there was no strike activity at his school, “Of course I’m not satisfied with the current level of pay. We primary school teachers…no matter what we are feeling, when we are in the classroom we feel we should respect the children and respect our education work. But in terms of wages, to be honest…actually, the Teachers Law and the Compulsory Education Law both require that our wages not be lower or higher than the level of local government employees. But the government has really not achieved this. We certainly are not very happy about this, and then there is price inflation…in 20 years we still would not be able to afford a house…everyone in this profession is without a permanent place to live, this certainly impacts on education.”
“To tell the truth,” the teacher continued, “teachers here, especially in our school, have a lot of complaints. But we are still doing our job; we do rather well in terms of teachers’ ethics. Other schools, as far as I understand, many schools, are conducting ‘soft strikes’ or formal strikes, that sort of thing.”
This teacher’s school was in a remote location but was “rather well known” and had been visited by government officials and experts, and was even the subject of a report on the television news. “Why do we do so well?” the teacher asked. “The key is the spirit of sacrifice on the part of our teachers.” But, the teacher continued, “Although our teachers did not participate in the strikes, we are paying attention to the issue…the teachers certainly supported the strikes.”
This teacher indicated that there was more at stake than simply wage levels: “Although it is a question of wages and benefits, it actually manifests more as a question of teachers’ status… We feel like our Teachers Law and Compulsory Education Law are only there for display, like puppets.”
Another difficulty facing the school was the loss of teachers to urban schools which offered better pay and benefits. “Especially the younger teachers, they adapt well to our new curriculum reforms…they have a greater ability to meet teaching challenges…so, countless teachers either find connections or pass the test to get into the city schools, and the benefits at city schools are much better, so the loss of our teaching resources is quite serious.” In looking at the whole situation, “We feel quite helpless, really.” The teacher indicated that this situation did nothing to improve the urban-rural education gap, which the government had acknowledged and was ostensibly trying to resolve.
The government and the Education Commission have been giving teachers the line that, “the merit pay (绩效工资) system is coming,” this primary school teacher continued. But “the teachers’ resentment is focused…on the autumn of 2007…when the government employees were beginning to implement merit pay. They promised us…they would begin paying it to the teachers in January of 2008. But when January came, nothing happened. Then the government and Education Commission told us that it would be in June of 2008. When June, 2008 came, we were told we needed to take the national situation into account due to the May 12 earthquake and the Olympics; now the state is busy with other things and this work has stopped temporarily. They said September of 2008, but it was not implemented then, either.”
When asked about the role played by the union, the teacher said that although all of the teachers were union members, the union was “totally powerless” to intervene on their behalf. The teacher said that all the union did was explain “that state policies were still being formulated, and an emergency meeting was being held by the Chongqing municipal finance and human resources bureaus and their response to the teachers would be posted on the internet. Now it is on the Education Commission website, and it says that when government’s policy comes out, Chongqing will implement teacher merit pay as soon as possible. Actually, I went to the website of the municipal Education Commission in Nanchang in Jiangxi, and I could see that their merit pay has already been implemented.” This was also the case in Guangdong. “If the state policy were not formulated yet,” continued the teacher, “places like the city of Nanchang, I would think, certainly would not be able to set such a policy, do you see?”
This teacher provided the phone number of another teacher, Mr. Tao, who had recently arrived to teach at a rural school which had participated in the strike. Mr. Tao said the action at his school began on 23 October, but he was careful to point out that the teachers did not strike by cancelling classes. “We are all in class; I did not say strike. We are just gradually reducing the amount of lecturing by teachers and allowing, cultivating the students capacity for self-study and self-research. It is not a strike.” Tao called it “cooperative study,” in which the students work with each other and the teachers “intervene a bit.” Tao acknowledged that they were “trying this out for the first time.” The action lasted for about a week, and the school had already basically returned to its usual teaching protocols. The action resulted in the county-level Education Commission stating that it would come up with a “quick resolution,” with regard to the issue of wages and benefits.
One day before the interview with Tao, teacher representatives held a meeting with Party and government officials, representatives of the county Education Commission, and school principals; attendees at the meeting numbered over 70. Each of the 20 schools attending had two representatives, one chosen by the administration, and one recommended by fellow teachers. One of the teacher-designated representatives told Han that the government was stalling and playing for time. “There was no response; they were just trying to placate us,” he said.
This teacher said his colleagues did not bother to go to the union with their problems, because the “they don’t believe in their own organization! And they are rather weak…they perform almost no function.” There was no union representative at the negotiation meeting. The teacher believed that there was “some sincerity” on the government side during the negotiation, but he was “not optimistic; there is still no response at all…the actual problem was not resolved.”
The teachers’ most basic demand, said this teacher representative, was to “carry out the requirements of the Teachers Law” in terms of wages and benefits. “The merit pay system for government workers began last year; it is already being implimented,” the teacher continued. “Now our wage level is approximately only one third or possibly one quarter of that of government workers…[we want to] close the gap!”
The government’s response at the meeting included a statement that there was “difficulty for the local government in terms of financial expenditure,” said the teacher, as well as a statement that “a specific solution was being studied and was not ready yet.” No specific timeline was given; “they just asked us to wait!” The teacher representative acknowledged that, if the teachers were to push too hard, “it certainly would not make the leadership happy, right?”
There was a certain amount of concern about the teachers’ lives being made more difficult as a result of the strike action. The action started with about 80 percent participation by teachers in the county, but after “the leadership did some work” to dissuade teachers, only 20 schools, or about one fifth of the county schools, were represented at the meeting.
Asked if the teachers would take similar action again if no positive results were forthcoming, the representative said, “To tell you the truth, I support education work and I love the students and the school. But now, truthfully, first off, teachers’ wages are just too low. If we are having some difficulties with our family, if we have difficulty just supporting our families, we’ll really not have the heart to do our education work well. This is a common sentiment among teachers.”
Han Dongfang’s interview with the Chongqing teachers was broadcast in three episodes in November 2008.