Jordanian teachers on trial after strikes leave classrooms empty for 11th day

Teachers are angry at what they say is a broken promise to bump salaries by 50 per cent

TOPSHOT - Jordanian teachers clash with security forces during a protest in the capital Amman on September 5, 2019. Thousands of public school teachers marched in central Amman demanding higher wages, just four days after the start of school year, as the Jordan Teachers Association's (JTA) demanded a 50 percent salary increase according to its leader. / AFP / Khalil MAZRAAWI
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Members of Jordan’s Teachers Association appeared in court on Thursday over the country-wide teachers' strike as the association and the government continued talks to end the protest action, now in its eleventh day.

The hearing at the West Amman Court was based on a complaint against the strike filed by parents concerned about the impact on their children’s education. Another hearing was scheduled for Tuesday.

Legal Affairs Minister Mubarak Ali Abu Yamin has deemed the strike to be illegal, citing a breach of Article 5 of the Jordan Teachers Association’s own rules, which prohibits tampering with the rights of students to learn.

The government on Thursday proposed a plan to improve teaching conditions and develop the quality of education during a second round of talks with the association after both sides re-opened dialogue following a week of deadlock.

According to the government proposal, the changes will be finalised within the next two months and implemented at the beginning of next year. However, the 50 per cent salary increase the association says teachers were promised five years ago was not addressed. The association was given two days to consider the offer.

Jordanian Prime Minister Omar Razzaz, who attended attended the first meeting late on Wednesday, described the talks as “positive and constructive”.

The strike began on September 5, when tens of thousands of teachers across the country took to the streets of Amman in protest of what they called a broken promise to increase salaries by 50 per cent made by the government in 2014.

Flowers sit in water in a deserted class that is located at one of the public schools during the first day of public school teachers' open strike in Amman, Jordan, September 8, 2019. Picture taken September 8, 2019. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Chaos ensued as protesters gathered in various locations and major roads were blocked, bringing the city to a standstill for several hours.

Although largely peaceful, there were reports of security forces using tear gas in an attempt to disperse demonstrators and a number of arrests were made.

Forty-year-old Kamel Alsoudi, who teaches computer science at a school in Aqaba – a port city located 330km south of Amman – was among those arrested.

"I was among the hundreds of protesters walking across Abdoun Bridge when 13 of us were arrested for no reason," he told The National. "We were simply walking, there was no conflict and no reason to arrest us.

“The police treatment of us was totally undignified. I was strip-searched and beaten. Police officers hit me all over my body. I was under arrest from early afternoon until 10:30 pm and was not given any food or water during that time.”

He says he was released without charge but adds that the experience has left him feeling “broken” and has destroyed his trust in the country’s authorities while making him fearful of Jordan’s security forces.

“I joined the protest because we cannot live on these salaries – I am not married because I cannot afford to support a family – but now it’s become a strike about our dignity. I feel sorry for how this is affecting the students’ education but it is the government that needs to uphold its promise and end the strike,” he says.

The National contacted the Public Security Directorate (PSD) and the prime minister's office regarding these claims against the police. Neither provided a comment, instead a spokesperson from the prime minister's office referred to a report by Jordan News Agency, Petra, regarding a press conference by the PSD the day after the protests.

According to the report, the PSD said measures taken by police were to maintain everyone’s safety. The PSD denied violations were committed against protesters and stated the security forces showed the “utmost restraint” towards teachers who mocked their educational level and “forced their way through” road-blocks.

It added that those arrested underwent standard procedures once at the security centre.

A total of 50 teachers were detained.

The syndicate's deputy head, Nasser Al Nawasrah, has said teachers would not enter classrooms until officials were held accountable, according to local reports.

Local news organisation Alwakeel News sparked outrage this week when it became embroiled in accusations of being overtly critical of the teachers.

Speaking to The National, student Muhimn Rababah, 18, said he was shocked to discover a photograph of him at an entirely separate event had been used by the news organisation to portray students angry at the strike.

The photograph in question was taken during a sit-in outside the House of Representatives on September 9 when students protested the government’s decision not to allow exam re-sits during the winter, forcing them to wait 10 months until next summer instead.

Alwakeel News used the photograph alongside the headline "Anger and protests among Tawjihi students due to strike". Tawjihi is the general exam Jordanian students take to go to university – equivalent to A-levels, the International Baccalaureate or the SAT's.

“They’ve used the photograph without my permission and for a false report. I support the teacher strike,” he said.

A number of private schools announced on Wednesday that they would welcome Tawjihi students for free outside of normal school hours. Additionally, a number of educational initiatives have been launched since the start of the strike – now at the end of its second week.

A number of public school teachers have given impromptu classes for Tawjihi students in certain subjects.

While in the town of Zarqa, the private schools, local private university and the local education authority have been providing schooling and transportation.

The Ministry of Education did not respond to The National's request for comment on the strikes.