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Hunger strike to win an extra $10

Desperate protest by 500 hundred of Ecuador's teachers forces government climbdown in battle over pay.

Teachers on hunger strike have forced Ecuador's government to make concessions in a battle over its failure to implement a promised $10 a month pay rise.

The new package ended two months of industrial action which escalated on December 16 when 81 teachers invaded government offices in Quito, the capital, and Gyaquil, 160 miles further south, and began a hunger strike.

They were joined by another 391 across the country.

"We're ready to give our lives, so that the government keeps its promise," teacher Edison Gavilanes told reporters.

The hunger strike - and a national strike by 120,000 members of the National Union of Teachers that affected three million pupils - reflected widespread anger at the government's failure to honour its pledge to give teachers an extra $10 from October. The promise was made to end earlier strike action in June.

Ernesto Castillo, the union's president, said that teachers had been forced to go on hunger strike because the government has "removed the bread from our tables".

Ecuador's teachers earn an average of just $180 (pound;99) per month, but many work for less than $40. Most of the hunger strikers quit within two weeks but a handful of teachers - and one pupil acting in solidarity - were still holding out when the government offered a new deal.

In June the government had agreed to hike basic pay by $20 a month in stages: $10 from October and an additional $10 more from this January. The government also promised to pay teachers a $10 bonus for the months of July, August and September.

But it failed to make the first payments in October, saying it did not have enough money.

"Teachers must understand that the treasury can not comply with what was agreed," Otton Moran, the education minister, said. He attacked teachers'

confrontational approach and called for "dialogue based on order, respect and tolerance". Paralysing public services is against Ecuadorian law. While protesting teachers were beaten by riot police last month, MPs awarded themselves a Christmas bonus of $4,120 on top of their normal salaries of $2,500-$3,000 a month.

But with the health of hunger-strikers deteriorating rapidly the union called off the strike on December 30. Though teachers' original demands have not been fully met, they claim to have won important concessions.

President Lucio Gutierrez has announced that he is prepared to increase teachers' basic pay by $10 plus a $20 monthly bonus in 2004. In 2005 salaries would be raised by an additional $5 with a monthly bonus of $15.

But as Ecuador's teachers fully realise, the government promising them more money is one thing, it actually coughing up the cash is quite another.

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