The motto “Teaching is the job of the prophets" can be seen written on the walls of classrooms across Iran, suggesting the profession is revered and admired throughout Iranian society.
But for years now, instead of being compared to prophets and upheld as pillars of the community, teachers have met with hostility from Iran’s leaders, hampered by inadequate salaries and poor working and living conditions, and placated with unfulfilled promises. Large numbers of them have turned to protest and had to endure summons, arrests and prison sentences.
Teachers’ unions have called for their salaries be brought in line with other government employees, and reject officials’ claim that a plan to foster greater equality is underway. They say it’s true that the government has given them a slight rise in their salaries, but it has had minimal impact due to the high rate of inflation. And there has, they say, been no attempt to equalize their earnings with other state employees.
Official data puts the poverty line in Tehran at 12 million tomans. In 2022, the minimum salary for government teachers is 5.8 million tomans, and the minimum salary of full-time teachers in non-governmental schools in 2021 was 3.8 million tomans. But these salaries are not consistent across the profession. For example, conditions are more difficult for teachers working in private, non-profit schools, and they earn between 600,000 and 800,000 tomans.
Contract teachers also serve the Iranian education system, and their chief complaint is lack of job security. They are often paid under the minimum wage set by the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor and Social Welfare and their employment falls under a variety of contracts, including "service purchase plans", "company contracts" and "fixed employment contracts". Sometimes their salaries are linked to tuition fees or, if working in schools framed around a specific type of education, such as the literacy movement, their salaries will be decided according to a different set of criteria.
Fighting for Equal Pay: A Race Against Time
Nejat Bahrami, the former Deputy Minister of Public Relations at the Ministry of Education, says equal pay within the government job sector is rooted in the country’s Civil Service Management Law, which was approved by parliament in 2007 during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. "The government was tasked with standardizing the payroll of government employees,” said Mohammad Habibi, a spokesperson for the Teachers' Union of Iran. "But Ahmadinejad would not accept it. This led to rallies in 2006 and 2007, which authorities suppressed, arresting protesters and using violence against them.
Then Hassan Rouhani came in as president and dismissed the law as outdated and in need of reform.
”One of the Management Law’s most important goals was that employees should have equal salaries: that is, gradually higher and lower salaries will be brought closer together,” Nejat Bahrami said. “But the issue has not been addressed. Governments have not implemented it since the 2000s under the pretext of not being able to because of budget deficits, but every few years, due to high inflation and living conditions, they have added an extra amount to employees' salaries, claiming this equalizes them. The principle of the law is not enforced because of financial burden."
According to him, in the early years after the law was passed, government officials insisted arbitrary rises in salaries was the same as carrying out the stipulations of the legislation. “When they suddenly added 25 percent to teachers' salaries in 2019, they said it was in line with the ranking system. But it had nothing to do with the ranking system. There was a spike in inflation and the government tried to address this in part. If the principle of these laws were to be enforced, on a larger scale everyone's salary would have to be increased by a high percentage, and this was a reality the government was unable to address.”
The Civil Service Management Act is part of what is known as the Sixth Development Plan, which is currently in its last year.
"This year is the last year of implementation of the Sixth Development Plan law," Bahrami said. "When the year 2022-2023 arrives, the deadline for the implementation of the Sixth Development Plan will expire. “The next development plan has not been formulated so far, and it is not clear when it will be developed and how seriously officials will pursue its implementation." If the time allocated for the action points to be implemented expires, teachers will be left without any clearly-defined agenda. “That’s why we are witnessing numerous gatherings of educators.”
Demands Confronted With Deception
"We have two main demands and always have,” said Mohammad Habibi. “One is the full implementation of the ranking system and the second is the equalization of employee’s salaries and pensions. First the Ahmadinejad government, then the Rouhani government, and now the Raisi government have not implemented this law."
IranWire also spoke to Abolfazl Rahimi Shad, a member of the Tehran Teachers' Union. ”Higher education was basically removed from the Civil Service Management Act and placed under the supervision of Board of Trustees organizations, which determine payment,” he said. “Because of this, university professors salaries’ are now between four and five times the salaries that teachers receive. The harmonious payment system tried to reduce differences, increase justice and reduce discrimination in society. But under the pretext of not having enough in the budget and the large population of teachers, those coefficients have either not been applied to us or have been implemented only once every few years. This has widened the gap.
“Like academics, we are either absent from the Civil Service Management Act and [our salaries] are handled by trustees, or we earn about 80 percent of what a university lecturer salary does when it comes to work experience and rank. They were deceptive, insisting that the maximum increase is equal to the minimum payment for a newly-hired university teacher. In other words, if they want to determine the salary of a teacher with 20 to 30 years’ work experience, they say it should be 80 percent of the salary of a person who has just been employed by the university. This deception has nothing to do with logic or the law."
The Government’s Legitimacy Undermined by Poverty
Another member of the Tehran Teachers' Union explained what he saw as the background of the salary row, and what was at stake. "In a free market economy, authorities acknowledge the value of your product. Based on that, your product will be paid for in relation to supply and demand, the specific value of your work and your wages. In systems such as the Islamic Republic, which do not follow this economic logic, governments assume this approach causes class divisions or may harm human dignity. They try to have a kind of system of distribution of resources and benefits according to the conditions and needs of the society.
"We are very different from countries that determine wages and benefits by logic; we approach our workers’ pay and benefits in a more discriminatory manner. When addressing the public, they came up with the Civil Service Management Act to eliminate discrimination among government employees. Ultimately, factors such as education, experience, skills, background, risk-taking, empathy, and the specifics of a particular area of work affect wages and lead to disputes.
"In a coordinated payment system, teaching staff and experts are split up because of the difference in their respective levels of job security. A coefficient of 1.1 percent — that is, 10 percent more — is applied to their salaries. Other government employees are also subject to such special coefficients. But this has not been implemented for teachers, leading to lower salaries for them.”
But Nejat Bahrami has a clear opinion of why successive governments have failed to secure better pay for teachers. “Since the 2000s and the approval of the Civil Service Management Act, the most important reason for non-implementation has been money. But the fact the law was approved indicates that the government intended to implement it. For this reason, they also approved its details and included it in the Sixth Development Plan. But, in my opinion, the failure is related to the direction of the government during these years and also the heavy costs it has incurred since the beginning of the nuclear conflict with the West and the heavy sanctions imposed during the Ahmadinejad era."
As Bahrami sees it, as pressure on the vulnerable classes increased, protests erupted across the country in response to the crisis of legitimacy. The government, in a panic, then spent whatever remained of its budget on suppressing protesters. "In these years as people face economic pressure, seminaries and military and security institutions expanded their propaganda operations, receiving more funding because the Islamic Republic feels its legitimacy is threatened by the spread of poverty. It strengthens and prioritizes propaganda and the work of security agencies in an attempt to take control of society. Regional and global crises, and this misguided approach to controlling Iranian society to prevent discontent, have emptied the government's coffers and further harmed society."
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