x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Saudi teachers head to court in fight over pay grades

Despite a year-old decision that acknowledged they had been appointed at the wrong pay grade, educators say their salaries and benefits remain insufficient to their ranks.

A Saudi teacher leads students on a visit to a Riyadh shopping mall. Female teachers have filed an additional lawsuit to bring their compensation in line with their male counterparts.
A Saudi teacher leads students on a visit to a Riyadh shopping mall. Female teachers have filed an additional lawsuit to bring their compensation in line with their male counterparts.

JEDDAH // More than 200,000 teachers have been locked in a three-year legal battle with the Saudi government after they were employed at the wrong grades for 12 years.

One year ago, a court issued a ruling ordering the ministry of education to promote the male and female teachers to their proper grades. But the teachers, who were the first public servants to organise a nationwide legal campaign against a government ministry, were unhappy with the verdict. They claimed their salaries were not adjusted even after they had received their promotions. The teachers are determined to obtain all the privileges they were denied since 1998 due to what they claim was an unfair recruitment scheme.

"It's going to be difficult to win our new cases, but we didn't lose hope," said Abdullah al Shareef, a teacher and spokesman for the group. "Teachers are sill frustrated as we only got part of our rights. "We were promoted to the fifth grade, but our salaries increased by fractions. It appeared as if it was a game just to please us to end the legal dispute." In January last year, King Abdullah approved plans to create 204,056 new jobs in the education sector to correct the status of the teachers. The king's decision came after the ministry of civil service presented a proposal to him to improve the situation of teachers holding lower job levels despite their higher qualifications.

According to civil service regulations, teachers graduating with an educational degree are appointed to the fifth grade while those with other degrees are appointed to the fourth grade on the Saudi public payroll system. However, starting in 1998, all new teachers were hired based on temporary contracts and were appointed to lower grades than they deserved by civil service regulations. Mr al Shareef said the battle now is against the ministry of finance and the ministry of civil service because they are responsible for the financial and administrative injustices the teachers face.

"The ministry of education wanted to help us all the way, but they don't have the funds and promotions are subject to the approval of the ministry of civil service," he said. "Everyone thinks he made an achievement just by promoting us to grades that we deserved long back, but who will pay us back all the benefits we didn't enjoy during all those years?" Mr al Shareef said there is another parallel dispute led by his female counterparts who have formed another group demanding equal pay and conditions to their male colleagues.

"Although the public service system grants teachers with similar qualifications from both sexes the same grade with the same benefits, females were appointed to lower grades than males in the past and they received lesser salaries after the recent promotion," he said. Mona Abdul Aziz, a spokeswoman for the female teachers' campaign, told local media that as a result of the initial campaign, male teachers saw a greater improvement in conditions than their female colleagues, thus they decided to form a separate group to demand the same treatment.

She explained that the difference in how the two groups were treated is attributed to the fact that women teachers are under the responsibility of the general presidency of girls' education. The ministry of education's spokesman did not reply to calls and messages. Mr al Shareef said the idea for filing a case against the ministry of education came from the misery teachers endured as they received monthly salaries around US$600 (Dh2,200) to $800 when they were first employed.

In a country where teachers do not have an official union or syndicate, it was difficult for public servants to wage such battles in courts. "Everyone was discouraging us by saying no one gets anything out of the government, but we proved the opposite," Mr al Shareef said. "We didn't get all of our rights but at least we started a culture among civil servants to demand for their rights and this is our major achievement."

Ahmad al Maliki, a Jeddah-based primary teacher, said the decision to put them in lower grades 12 years ago had to do with "the country's economic conditions more than any thing else". He said oil prices were below $10 per barrel at that time and the ministry of education invented the temporary contract solutions to employ them under a different civil system so that they did not have the right to sue them or complain.

Talking about the reason why he and other teachers joined the ministry of education when the conditions were deteriorating, Mr al Maliki said graduates of the education college were obliged to sign a contract for four years with the ministry of education. "We had no choice. That's why you find many teachers working in second jobs especially as journalists and real estate brokers over the past 12 years," he added.

On March 8, the Saudi king said in front of the Shoura Council, the kingdom's consultative body that acts as a parliament, that he was determined to create more than 200,000 educational jobs to correct the status of teachers. "This is part of our endeavour to provide enough job opportunities for our citizens," he said. wmahdi@thenational.ae