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Strikes as pay hit by the great freeze

Russia

Many teachers are worse off now than when the Soviet Union collapsed, reports Simon Pirani.

TEACHERS were today due to join national demonstrations in protest at low wages and late payments. Staff are already on strike in areas where they have not been paid for more than six months.

Teachers say that even if wages were paid on time they would still be worse off than before the 1998 financial crisis. Even then they were already poorer than when the Soviet Union collapsed. Outside Moscow wages are as little as pound;17.50 a month.

A 20 per cent pay increase included in the 2001 budget is "paltry", said Nikolai Kolobashkin of the Union of Education and Scientific Workers.

"Members are striking in areas where wage arrears have built up again, but nationally we are focusing on the fact that the pay scale itself impoverishes teachers."

Galina Gorokhova, one of the 30,000 teachers in the far east of Russia who went on strike last last week, said the five months of arrears - worth 18 million roubles (pound;450,000) - is "an insult, to teachers and pupils alike".

Salaries are just the tip of the iceberg. Despite sub-zero temperatures, heating and hot water have been cut off in schools, hospitals and other public buildings in Ussuritsk, where Ms Gorokhova teaches at a primary school.

Twelve other eastern towns are in the samepredicament. "It's permanently cold," Ms Gorokhova said. "We go from our freezing flats to our freezing schools. It's too cold to work and even the pot plants are dying. We have told the children to stay at home."

On November 10, more than 1,000 of the region's teachers blocked the motorway linking Russia with China. In the Altai republic in eastern Siberia, where pound;2.5m is owed, staff from 29 schools blocked the road link to Mongolia.

The Union of Education and Scientific Workers also reported pay protests in the republics of Tuva and Mordovia, and the Amur, Kurgan. Chukotka, Khabarovsk and Ulyanovsk regions.

Last year, a World Bank report noted that teachers had been "particularly demoralised" by the arrears and the loss of other benefits. A study of living standards published by the bank in September, Making Transition Work For Everyone, concluded that school enrolment rates were falling and inequalities widening.

Overall, the report said that poverty had increased "dramatically" in the post-Soviet period, with 21 per cent of the population in absolute poverty in 1998 compared with 2 per cent in 1988.

"Educational and health services are under threat, particularly for the poor," the bank concluded. Deprived children are being forced to drop out because their families cannot afford clothing, transport and textbooks.

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