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Kyrgyz Teachers Win Court Case on Unpaid Wages

Schoolteachers are refusing to accept a government offer of bonds to settle unpaid bonuses.
By Tolkun Namatbaeva
Teachers in Kyrgyzstan have given a chilly response to plans to compensate them for unpaid bonus payments with government bonds.

The cash-strapped state owes teachers a significant sum after making wage commitments that it now cannot or will not live up to.

In early February, Finance Minister Tajikan Kalimbetova admitted to parliament that the government owed its 120,000 schoolteachers about 2.4 billion soms, equivalent to 70 million US dollars.

The government has earmarked a total of 80 million dollars for education in this year’s budget.

Kalimbetova said the government planned to pay the outstanding sum it owed not in cash but in bonds, which recipients could eventually turn into money.

The unpaid funds date back to a law passed in April 2004 which awarded generous-sounding bonuses to teachers according to length of service. Teachers who had worked for at least five years were entitled to an additional ten per cent or more on top of their current monthly salary; those with ten years of service were awarded 20 per cent and those with 15 years behind them were to be paid a 30 per cent bonus.

The mood of rejoicing in teachers’ common rooms was short-lived. None of the extra payments have ever been paid out.

After growing tired of demanding the money, teachers from the northern Issykkul region filed a law suit against the Ministry of Education late last year. This has served as a precedent for their colleagues in other regions, including the capital Bishkek, who have launched similar actions.

Bakyt Kurmanalieva, a science teacher from the village of Koltor, in the Issykkul region, told IWPR that going to court had proved effective. On February 19, the Pervomaysky district court in Bishkek ruled in favour of teachers from her village, and ordered the ministry to pay out the money it owed them.

“According to the court, I am now owed 33,000 soms [about 1,000 dollars],” she said. “There are about 20 other plaintiffs - teachers from our village - and the ministry owes them about 20,000 soms each.”

Kurmanalieva said such sums were “a huge amount of money” for a village teacher.

She insisted the money should be paid in cash, not government securities. “You can’t keep your family on that,” she explained. “I have four children and could use that money right now to buy clothes, and food. We want cash, not pieces of paper.”

Teachers’ salaries are now among the lowest in Kyrgyzstan and even those who have specialist subjects earn only 80 or 90 dollars a month.

With pay so poor, there is a reluctance to enter the profession and a particular dearth of young teachers in rural areas. According to the education ministry, the southern Osh region is short of at least 500 teachers.

Bolot Maripov, an adviser to the finance ministry, confirmed that payment would be forthcoming, but only in the delayed form of bonds.

“The decision to pay the teachers in bonds means the payment will be delayed, but the government will have to pay up at some point,” he said. ‘It’s true that two and a half billion soms is a significant sum for the budget, but this is still achievable.”

Political observer Marat Kazakpaev said the court cases had set an important precedent, and the government would do well to use some of the income from the lucrative Kumtor gold mine to pay the teachers. Under a recently revised agreement with the contractor, the government is expected to earn higher revenues from the mine.

“It isn’t right to pay them off with bonds,” said Kazakbaev.

Gaisha Ibraimova, a former education minister who now runs a private school in Bishkek, agreed that the bond offer was “inadequate”, especially since teachers’ salaries no longer amount to a living wage.

“Paying them off with bonds under such conditions is simply robbery,” said Ibragimova. “Besides, these bonds cannot be cashed in as soon as the teachers would like.”

Tolkun Namatbaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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