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Blackboard jungle: The plight of Indonesia's honorary teachers

Hundreds of thousands of non-permanent teachers grapple with low wages and weak job protection

Blackboard jungle: The plight of Indonesia's honorary teachers

Non-permanent teachers at a state high school in Manggarai district, East Nusa Tenggara province, hold a rally to protest against unfair practices in July 2020.  (Photo supplied)

After teaching for 16 years at a public elementary school in Bone district of South Sulawesi province, Hervina takes home 500,000 rupiah (US$35) a month, plus an incentive of 700,000 rupiah which she gets every four months.

Her recent move to share her situation on social media went viral and sparked a public outcry.

As she was accused of damaging the reputation of the school, the principal fired her but later reinstated her after intervention from the local and central governments.

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Her case has exposed the fate of hundreds of thousands of her fellows, known as honorary teachers — a term for non-permanent teachers seconded to schools to address teacher shortages who are grappling with low wages and weak job protection.

Based on data of the Ministry of Education and Culture, last year there were 728,461 honorary teachers in all schools, from elementary to senior high school level.

According to a survey conducted by the Indonesian Teachers' Association, 52.2 percent of these teachers still receive salaries below 500,000 rupiah per month, far below the minimum wage in each province, which averages 2.5 million rupiah, while their workload is almost the same as that of permanent teachers.

Such a situation prevails not only in public schools but also in private schools including Catholic schools.

Aven Arut, a teacher at an elementary school in Ruteng Diocese in East Manggarai district of East Nusa Tenggara province for the past three years, receives 400,000 rupiah per month.

"The money is only enough to buy gasoline for the motorbike which I use to get to the school from my house five kilometers away," he told UCA News, adding that he still had to live with his parents.

He said he had taken the selection test to become a civil servant several times but failed.

Fahriza Marta Tanjung, deputy general-secretary of the Federation of Indonesian Teachers' Unions, said the role of honorary teachers is crucial because in a number of regions the teacher-student ratio is still below the standard of one teacher for 32 students.

However, he said, the regulations that protect them are still minimal, with the majority working on a contract system that lasts for years.

“It is actually a system that workers in the industrialized world have been resisting because in that system employers do not have to be burdened by the long-term responsibilities attached to permanent employees," he told UCA News.

Father Vinsensius Darmin Mbula, chairman of the National Council of Catholic Education, said in Catholic schools most of the honorary teachers are in remote areas.

He said the council had appealed to the schools to provide them with a decent salary. “However, the amount depends on the financial capacity of the school," he told UCA News.

He added that they have received reports from various schools that are facing difficulties due to the impact of the pandemic, with many parents asking for a reduction in school fees.

"This also complicates the position of schools, including meeting teachers' salaries," he said.

Meanwhile, following the outrage over Hervina's case, Iwan Syahril, director-general of the Teachers and Education Personnel at the Ministry of Education, said they had prepared a scheme to tackle the problem.

In June, they will hold a test to become government employees with a work agreement where teachers who pass will receive a salary equivalent to that of a civil servant. "We believe this will answer the problem of the welfare of honorary teachers," he said.

The ministry is preparing an allocation for one million teachers, which is also open to new graduates. So far, the policy has received mixed responses.

Arut said he would try to seize the opportunity and planned to take the test. "I will definitely join the test as it is impossible to continue with this situation," he said.

Meanwhile, Yashinta (not her real name), an honorary teacher with three children in Bandung, West Java province, who has taught at an elementary school for 10 years, said she hopes there will be special attention on those who have served for years.

"I am 50 years old and find it impossible to pass the test," she said, adding that they hoped for additional income specifically allocated by the government.

Although he appreciated the ministry’s program, Father Mbula also has reservations. He said there should be a special policy for teachers from private schools who passed the test to be reassigned to those schools.

"So far, many Catholic schools have been disappointed because many teachers have been specially assisted intensively in various aspects over the years, then easily move away when they qualify as civil servants," he said.

"In fact, placing teachers who are paid by the government in private schools, especially in remote areas and those with financial difficulties, is a form of support for the existence of those schools." 

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