Paraguay is seeing the development of a powerful teacher struggle not seen in decades. Different unions of education workers have come together to fight for wages in the face of the government’s non-compliance. We had the opportunity to interview two leaders of two of the main unions of the union unity, who have fought for 10 days to this date and still there is no favorable response, once again, from the government of Mario Abdo. On this occasion we spoke to Gabriel Espínola, General Secretary of the OTEP-A (teachers union).
ILS: Tell us a little about the origin of the conflict that is taking place now.
G.E: The education workers have a professional legislation since 2001. That year, the Act 1725: Educator Statute was passed. For the first time in Paraguay, teachers have a legal face, in other words, they are legally recognized as a professional. Inside that legislation, we have several benefits and rights that up to now are not being complied with. One of them is the professional minimum wage. After 15 years in 2016 we reached an agreement, which is to assign a number to the professional minimum wage, and that number was to reach gradually in 4 years. That is why, in 2020 we had to define that number but we were denied due pandemic and in 2021 we are being avoided in some way because since the last trimester they need to implement a cut of 16% and there is still another cut pending for next year in order to reach the overall minimum wage which is about 3 000 000 guaranis for most teachers, the percentage of accumulated inflation from 2016 to 2022 is added. It enables the basic professional wage. The implementation of the teaching career has indicators to meet on the salary floor, indicators that are of cuts of increase by five-year period, with two levels. One has to do with the experience, that is to say, once the five-year period is completed they should add automatically an increase for seniority and 3 criteria for professional level, performance evaluation, research work and continuous training. Continuous training is 100 hours per year and must accumulate 500 hours in a five-year period and in our indicators it will be granted proportionally. But implementing the teaching career on the salary floor means a tremendous budgetary increase and we believe that the Ministry of Finance, which has other economic prospects, does not intend to comply with us. Because Paraguay has an endemic malady, this endemic malady is the absolutely inequitable tax matrix. As long as this tax matrix continues, we are going to continue with this type of problem, and not only us but also the doctors, the farmers, the homeless, those who do not have basic services, that is to say, the popular social sector, in general. We are going to continue with this problem as a consequence of this endemic malady, and proof of this is that the national tax secretary indicated that we have had 1.7 billion dollars in tax evasion and it is evident that if the State cannot collect that, obviously it will not be able to comply with any popular sector. And it shows that this State model and the government are not interested in a different kind of education, that is why there is no free education, that is why there is no guarantee of school supplies according to these times as well as the implementation of technology. We want technology to be incorporated, to accompany the children’s education process. So in this conflict we are developing in this context, and it is already twenty years and it is too long.
ILS: How is the national government reacting to this struggle?
G.E: In recent times this government has been characterized by two issues: insensitivity and irresponsibility. Irresponsibility for not complying with a regulation, not only with one, but with more than one regulation. Weeks ago, it even ratified an agreement with the ILO on social security, and to what effect? Only for the purpose of having non-refundable loans from the European Union, not precisely to comply with social security in reality, that is to say: if we do not have the allocation that corresponds to us, we do not comply with social security. And the insensitivity comes from the fact that there are 80,000 teachers and 1,300,000 students and it shows that they are not interested in us at all. If there were some social sensitivity they would respond. They claim discursively that the Colorado Party is a social party, but it is only a speech.
ISL: How did the teaching sector go through this pandemic?
G.E: I would say that with back and forth, being part of this great digital gap between teachers. This gap is not only between students, even if the teacher would like to say so, in Agüerito or in Zanja Pyta or the colleagues of Fuerte Olimpo they will not be able to have connectivity: it does not reach them, and most of the impoverished marginalized populations and native peoples cannot have access to it either. It is not the same as if I told you about a school in the capital, where there are greater possibilities because here there is greater connectivity. We have gone through, I would not say worse than other sectors, but with ups and downs in the assumption of the responsibility to replace the State policy, the teacher has ridden his bicycle and has arrived home in full pandemic to go to get a copy, or his motorcycle, even with high levels of infection, and it calls our attention when we read in the headlines of ABC Color (main bourgeois newspaper of Paraguay) where they call us insensitive and that we despise education: it seems crazy to us! But well, it is the opinion of an entity that has a financial vision and not a social vision of what education should fulfill.
ISL: What is the perspective of the struggle, and what are the prospects of coordinating with other sectors, bearing in mind that the doctors and the native peoples are also mobilizing?
G.E: We have to coordinate. It is necessary, it is essential and we are already in conversation with the health workers: there is a very important conceptual advance, they consider themselves health workers, and that unites us, and not only for the issue of salaries, especially in a society like ours, where we do not have free public health, nor free public education, that is: in name yes, but in concrete facts, you go to the IPS (Social Work of the educators), although they take from your salary to attend us, and even so I end up buying all my own medicines. So it is necessary to go beyond the salary, it is necessary to define State policies for a model of society, and we all have to do it together.
ISL: In the world the States and governments want to impose their agenda of labor flexibilization after the pandemic and while all governments continue to pay the foreign debt and adjust to do so: Do you think the working class is going to resist against these outrages?
G.E: Well, we have a scenario to go to first, which is the reorientation of the working class. What we want to say is that for example we are part of a center that is still not giving basic satisfaction to this demand, today we have the absence of the trade union centers, and we are already 9 days away from a strike. There is solidarity on paper, but where are the workers’ delegations? So we have to enter into a process of reorientation at the same time in which we are acting, and we have to place in the debate what is the meaning of the plundering of the payment of the foreign debt and of the interests and the plundering of the hydroelectric plants, which are our most important assets for the development of our country. I believe that it is necessary to project so that we not only have to resist this, but also so that we have to advance beyond what the corporate demand may mean.
ISL: Finally, a message you leave to the workers’ organizations of the International Sociaislt League?
G.E.: Well, I think we are on the line of claiming what justly corresponds to all workers and to all workers in general, here there is no distinction. Certainly we have to say that here there is a center-right composition among the organizations that characterizes the majority, we are closer to the left. The development of Stronismo has been very effective in that sense, the training of teachers is very loaded, with what formality, verticality and subjugation mean. Breaking with that is not done with speeches, but with practices that we have to develop and in that I believe that the International SociaISLt League can accompany us with its experience and its history of struggle as well.
Interviewed by: Nico Germanier, Alternativa Socialista (Paraguay)