Teachers in Three Provinces Deal With Low, Late Salaries Low Pay

A firecracker scattered paper shrapnel through Hun Sen Sa’ang High School’s central square, jolting students awake Tuesday morning.

In the teachers’ quarters, another bomb burst: The faculty got paid four days before payday.

In the past few years, teachers at this high school in Kandal province’s Sa’ang district have received their salaries early four or five times, said Kourn Ngourn, who has taught geography and earth science at the school since 1994.

“Usually, all the teachers receive their salary on the 15th or 20th of the next month,” he said.

For years, late pay has been a chronic problem across the country, said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association.

“I am also surprised that Sa’ang High School got paid early,” said Rong Chhun, a former teacher at the high school. “I think the government did this because they want to avoid the teachers reacting with a strike.”

Ngy Tayi, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Finance, said he tries each month to reduce the time it takes for payrolls to reach the provinces, but salaries are sometimes late in far-away provinces.

“Now, the time for delivering the salaries is very big,” he said.

The late salaries have created a slow boil among teachers frustrated with working conditions.

Many complain that their overtime pay is one year overdue.

Ly Sathik, an official in the Ministry of Education’s Finance Department, said provincial governors are responsible for paying overtime to teachers.

In Pailin, salaries late by two months led teachers to walk out of their jobs for one day last month. Classes were canceled but resumed the following day after the municipality’s treasury paid the salaries.

For the past few months, salaries have been later than usual, Rong Chhun said.

“At this time, I think the teachers cannot get their payments due to the political situation in the government,” he said.

Teachers and Farmers

If Ek Sarith had a list of required materials for her pedagogy course, it might read like this: Books. Pens. Pitchfork. Spade.

Like her 299 colleagues in the Svay Rieng provincial school’s two-year course, Ek Sarith is being trained not only how to teach reading and mathematics, but also how to survive on a paltry income.

Part of her training regime is how to grow her own fruits and vegetables in a small garden at Svay Rieng High School, as well as simple computer skills that might be useful in getting a second job.

“We know that it is a small salary,” the 19-year-old says, “but it is better than just farming.”

One might add patience and forbearance to her list. Although everyone agrees that teachers deserve better pay, salaries are unlikely to jump significantly anytime soon.

Government and education officials recognize that the pay—beginning in Svay Rieng province at about $25 a month

—is a large contributor to the problems that plague education here, especially the widespread corruption between parents, students and teachers.

But for now, the directors at Svay Rieng High School say groups like CITA are taking the wrong tack by demanding more cash.

CITA, which was founded in 2000 and now counts 2,500 teachers as members in several provinces, has urged the government to raise teacher salaries to $100 per month.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has said the government would like to give teachers higher salaries, but cannot afford to do so. The government employs about 100,000 teachers nationwide.

“The salary is a big factor in this morality problem and the bribes,” said school Director Oum Khon. “Still, we know the situation and we know the government can do nothing right now.”

Instead, he said, “Every teacher must be a farmer.”

Khvan Kim Ean, the deputy chief of administration, has taken that altruistic and agrarian lesson to heart. As a main instructor in the pedagogy school, he even teaches his students to take their showers in the center of their gardens in order to save water.

“Our salary is so small, we have to find another solution to support our families,” Khvan Kim Ean said.

The vagaries of salary distribution are part of the job, he said, though in Svay Rieng payments are normally on time. By Wednesday, this month’s salaries had not yet arrived for Svay Rieng teachers, and Khvan Kim Ean could not recall when salaries arrived in December.

So far, that training strategy has been a relative success in Svay Rieng. CITA has attracted few members in this CPP stronghold; the government ranks the province’s biggest school as one of the country’s best, and, this year, the pedagogy program turned away more than 800 eager applicants.

“The teacher has an obligation to teach the students. They do not get involved in politics,” said Ke Chann, a deputy director at Svay Rieng High School. “If they are considering a strike, they are thinking about the wrong issue. Salaries are for the Ministry of Education to decide.”

Pittance Delayed

Quick payments often depend on who you know in Phnom Penh, said Them Lim Eng, director of provincial education in Pursat province.

“Pursat is the second fastest of all the provinces to get paid because I have a close relationship with the treasury,” he said.

The national treasury distributes money to teachers by sending it to the provincial treasuries, where it is distributed to the schools, said Choy Aum, general director of administration and finance at the Ministry of Education.

Teachers at Pursat High School say they usually receive their pay—about $28—around the 5th or 10th of the month, said Yeap Seng, a high school teacher and the local head of CITA.

When their pay is late, teachers in Pursat town often have no money to pay their bills, and they find their electricity and water supply shut off at home, said Sophoin Rany, who teaches third grade at Pursat elementary school.

Delays only exacerbate the problem of low pay, causing many teachers to take second jobs, said Tann Sophean, 39, who teaches sixth grade.

Teachers say women typically sell produce, while men drive motorbike taxis.

When the money arrives, teachers are told they can come to the school office to pick up their pay, which is always in cash, Kourn Ngourn said.

The pay scale for teachers is highly convoluted, as their total pay depends on their marital status, the number of children they have, whether they’ve studied pedagogy formally and the level of classes they teach, Rong Chhun said.

The base salaries for teachers, however, range from about $20 for a primary teacher to about $30 for a high school teacher, he said.

Lessons in Economics

Kourn Ngourn receives about $50 per month as a teacher at Sa’ang High School because of his level of education and his teaching experience.

His colleague Heng You has been trying to put two children through university on her base salary of $20 per month. She cannot handle all the payments. So she sells fruit and vegetables, which bring in about $150 per year. A geography teacher, her day begins at 4 am and doesn’t end until 11 pm.

Meng Hour, 16, said he has considered becoming a mathematics teacher when he finishes his studies, but the problems he sees at his school discourage him.

“It’s no good for the teachers in Sa’ang High School,” he said.

Several Sa’ang teachers tutor private classes during the evening as a second job—Kourn Ngourn works a 12-hour day with the classes he teaches to supplement his income.

Another teacher, Choil Kosal, who teaches mathematics, has only 15 minutes for lunch. Both he and Kourn Ngourn work double shifts due to shortages of teachers at their school.

They should make about $1.30 for every hour they work overtime, but most have not been paid in more than a year, said Kourn Ngourn, who also serves as a top official in CITA.

“In our school, the school master told some teachers that the government will pay for the overtime next week,” Kourn Ngourn said. “But we are not sure about this and we wait.”

If the money still doesn’t come, he said, teachers may begin discussing a strike.

To make ends meet, teachers have developed a culture of petty corruption, Kourn Ngourn said.

Some students bribe teachers to increase their class scores, although Kourn Ngourn said he doesn’t allow this to go on in his classroom.

But Heng You said students often pay a teacher’s assistant for the higher scores.

Kourn Ngourn said he regularly charges students about 300 riel for a lesson paper or an exam paper. With 40 to 60 students in every class, that adds up to about $15 per month, he said.

“This is outside of the rules of the ministry, but the teachers decide to do it,” he said.

“If I don’t do it, then I will be a strange person,” he said. “They will accuse me…. Selling school exam papers has become the custom.”

(Additional reporting by Phann Ana, Luke Reynolds, Saing Soenthrith and Solana Pyne)

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