Teachers across Middle East turn to tutoring or move abroad as cost of living rises

Educators in some parts of the region have been forced to take up second or third jobs as inflation devalues salaries

Pupils at a school in Irbid, Jordan. Some teachers in the country have taken jobs abroad, contributing to a widespread brain drain. Reuters
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Teachers are the backbone of any strong society, enriching and moulding the minds of children to ensure a country continues to develop and its culture endures.

But as inflation rises and the cost of living becomes more expensive, teachers are beginning to find life across the region unsustainable.

Some have been forced to offer private tutoring or take on second jobs, while others feel compelled to explore opportunities in other countries – all just to stay afloat financially.

The National spoke to teachers in Giza, Irbid, Halabja, Beirut and Dubai about how the rising cost of living has affected them.

Giza, Egypt

Once a cornerstone of the Egypt’s flourishing intellectual society, teachers – like much of the population – have felt the weight of the country's economic challenges this year.

Egypt’s headline inflation has surged to record highs since March 2022. Inflation was 34.6 per cent in November, having been at an all-time high of 38 per cent in September.

As Egypt looks to introduce reforms, teachers' wages have stagnated. The discrepancy in salaries for government and private sector teachers is stark. Teachers at government schools earn between 3,000 and 4,000 Egyptian pounds ($97-$129) a month, about half of what their private school counterpart are paid.

Many teachers have resorted to working after hours as private tutors to make ends meet.

An English teacher at a private school in Giza told The National that her monthly salary of 2,500 Egyptian pounds had been rendered almost worthless by the sharp rise in prices.

Basic food items, including sugar, cooking oil and various vegetables have soared in price. While some goods have doubled in price, others, including meat, have more than tripled since 2021.

She has had to increase the number of hours she works at a private tutoring centre, which earns her a further 7,500 Egyptian pounds a month, she said.

“It’s been a hard time, but in many ways I am lucky," she said. "It seems that parents are responding to the financial uncertainty in their lives right now by becoming more committed to their children’s education. I think they believe that with the way things are headed, the best tool to equip their children with is education.”

While she feels safe in her job, she said some of her friends and family who work in sectors deemed less important have lost their jobs in recent months.

“Something I have noticed is how financially constrained my pupils’ families have been lately. Many pupils are unable to afford reading materials and many others have had to postpone payments,” she said.

Irbid, Jordan

Hamouda Samir, 32, taught geology at a government school for four years in Jordan's northern city of Irbid, but was forced to work three other jobs to stay afloat financially.

He has a master’s degree in geology from the University of Jordan. In addition to teaching, he offered tutoring in science subjects, sold corn from a street cart and dabbled in brokering wedding venue rentals as a freelance agent.

“I used to leave home at seven in the morning and come back at nine or 10 at night, without managing to save much,” said Hamouda, who preferred to only give his middle name Samir.

He was one of thousands of white-collar Jordanians earning meagre salaries in the country, which has a small economy that depends on aid and remittances.

The average Jordanian makes about $4,300 a year, similar to the average salaries in Egypt. But the cost of living in Jordan is substantially higher.

Statistical website Numbeo this year ranked Jordan as the 68th most expensive country to live in out of 140 nations surveyed. Other nations in the region include Iraq, ranked 106, and Egypt, ranked 139.

Hamouda left Jordan recently for Kuwait (ranked 66 in the Numbeo survey), as part of a decades-long official protocol between the two countries.

Under the agreement, thousands of Jordanian teachers can qualify to work in Kuwait's public school system, where they can earn far higher salaries. Their departure is part of a brain drain trend, as bright professionals leave their home countries for better pay abroad.

In Kuwait, Hamouda makes $1,700 a month and expects to bring in a total of $5,000 with supplemental income from private tutoring. He was paid $560 to teach Jordan, with a further $500 coming from his additional jobs.

“The private tutoring market is very strong in Kuwait and I have a master's, which makes me qualified to tutor university students,” he said.

“I was still lucky in Irbid. Some of my colleagues were living on half of what I was making."

He owned a used car in Jordan, but that meant that he spent 15 to 20 per cent of his income on petrol, which he said was “very expensive” at $1.40 a litre.

“Clothes are also very expensive, but I solved that by buying from the baleh [used or surplus clothes shops],” he said.

Inflation in Jordan was 2.2 per cent in the first 10 months of 2023, according to official figures, compared with about 4 per cent for the whole of 2022. But basic food is “not very expensive” in Irbid, he said.

Hamouda said his extra income helped him to deal with the increase in prices, but teachers who earned less rarely ate meat and sometimes walked long distances to save money.

“Unless you leave Jordan, there is no option except to get by on what you make,” he said.

Beirut, Lebanon

Lebanon has been gripped by an economic crisis since 2019, with the situation described by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern history. Salaries have been hit hard in all sectors and there is a widespread shortage of essentials including fuel, clean water, medicine and electricity.

The local currency has lost about 98 per cent of its value against the dollar on the parallel market, with the crisis blamed on decades of corruption and financial mismanagement by the Lebanese elite.

Manal Hdaife, principal of a public primary school attended by 500 Lebanese children and 650 Syrian refugees, earned a salary that was equal to about $1,500 a month before the crisis. It has since fallen to $70.

“All of the people changed their lives, all of the people. How can we buy food? How can we buy clothes? How can we buy everything? How can we go to the restaurants? How can we go out from our homes? Everything has changed,” said Ms Hdaife, who is also a senior member of a teaching union.

Some teachers have left their jobs, either to work abroad or at NGO's where the salary is higher. Most remain in the profession, although this is probably because the economic crisis has devastated all sectors in the country.

“Now we are going to work only, to come home, to pay for the electricity, to pay for the phone, to pay for the water, fuel. There are priorities now. It’s not the same [as before]," she said.

“Unfortunately, the crisis has affected the teachers, the unions, the schools and the students, and the education sector overall. How can I go to my school when my salary is $70 a month? The crisis has had a big, bad effect on the education sector."

The crisis has led to repeated strikes by teachers.

In September, Human Rights Watch warned that the new school year was at risk amid the crisis, with some teachers unable to pay for fuel to drive to their schools. At home, the Lebanese who can afford it are forced to rely on expensive diesel-guzzling private generators, with public electricity only available for a few hours a day.

Halabja, Iraq

Across Iraq, teachers are facing an uphill battle as the country is gripped by economic challenges and political infighting.

Prices have surged amid global increases and unpredictable fluctuations in the exchange rate against the dollar.

The strain is felt most intensely in the northern Kurdistan region, where a financial dispute with the federal government has deprived thousands of teachers of their salaries.

“The situation in which the teachers live in is very bad,” Mohammed Hamma, a maths teacher from Halabja city in Kurdistan, told The National.

Since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Baghdad and authorities in the Kurdistan region have been at loggerheads over natural resources and revenue sharing.

The dispute was exacerbated in 2013 when Baghdad began to withhold Kurdistan share from the federal budget when it started exporting oil unilaterally, meaning the regional government was unable to issue full salaries and social service payments in time.

Mr Hamma, 62, is owed about 60 million Iraqi dinar ($45,650) in unpaid salaries and promotions. He has worked for about 40 years earns a salary of 1,900 million Iraqi dinar.

“For all these 10 years, we have not received any of our salaries either in time or in full,” he said. “For instance, we only received five salaries in 2020 and for most of these years we received about 33 per cent of the salary.

“To make ends meet over the past decade, I sold our orchard, land lot and even some of my wife’s gold."

The pressure eased when his three daughters were married, allowing Mr Hamma to use his money to help get his son through his pharmaceutical studies at college.

“Our main priority now is my son the student and then us. I still have a small orchard and we can buy food, but there are others who can’t and they even sold their houses,” he said.

He has received his salary for September, but is uncertain when he will be paid next. “For the past four to five years, we have reduced our expenses to the minimum, and we stopped travelling abroad as we used to,” he said.

“If they give us our salary in time and full, we can live like kings.”

Teachers in Sulaymaniyah, a province in the Kurdistan region, have been on strike since September. Those in Erbil and Duhok provinces also went on strike, but have since returned to work, fearing reprisals from authorities.

As the Iraqi dinar has wavered against the dollar since late last year, physics teacher Abbas Al Kinani in Baghdad has felt the pinch.

“I lost 25 per cent of the value of my salary due to unstable exchange rate which has pushed the prices up by 25 per cent. That means 50 per cent of the value of my salary is gone,” said Mr Al Kinani, 43.

The father of three said his salary was “enough for about 20 days without emergency expenses on doctors or other things”.

He is able to make ends meet by working at a private education institution.

Dubai, UAE

Teachers in the UAE can be among the highest paid in the world, but the rising cost of living has had an effect on the sector.

Rents dropped during the Covid-19 pandemic, but have since increased. The cost of food has risen but salaries have not, said Bindu, who has been a teacher in Dubai for the past 30 years.

To manage her household, she keeps an eye on weekly supermarket deals and maintains a tight budget.

“Overall, everything has gone up – especially the price of vegetables. This has gone up 25 per cent since the start of the year," she said. “People buy fewer vegetables now because its costly."

Typically, new teachers or those with only a few years of experience are paid between Dh5,000 to Dh12,000 ($1,360 to $3,265) a month in the UAE. Wages vary across the country and can be as high as Dh20,000 depending on the teacher’s experience, the curriculum they teach and the school they work in.

Bindu said concerns about the cost of living could affect the whole family.

“Not meeting the daily requirements of a family can affect a person mentally," she said. “It affects the family if the person running the house does not have a sufficient income to have a comfortable life.”

The government has set a limit on the prices of essentials, but costs have generally risen for an average family.

Dubai’s housing, utilities and fuel – which make up 40 per cent of the consumer price index – moved up 5.94 per cent yearly in June, the emirate's statistics centre said in July.

Apartment rents climbed by about 22 per cent annually in July this year, hitting he highest levels since February 2017. Villa rents also shot up by 22.6 per cent as demand for homes grew.

Bindu said she was fortunate, because the Dh80,000 annual rent for her two-bedroom home in Bur Dubai was covered by her husband’s employer. The cost was Dh120,000 a few years ago, before dropping to Dh65,000. It has started to climb steadily climb again.

She knows several teachers who chose to pay higher rents demanded by landlords to avoid being forced to move to different schools.

“Rents that had gone down are rising again but salaries have not gone up,” she said. “During Covid, some landlords reduced the rent to an extent but now the increase is drastic, and people cannot move out immediately so they have to pay the increase.”

Despite the challenges, Bindu said she did not regret becoming a teacher. “I would not change anything. I chose this because it is my passion."

She said the UAE was safe and "we can see a lot of growth and investment". Those who facing financial challenges as prices rise "should not be forgotten", she said.

Updated: January 07, 2024, 9:46 AM