School support staff cry foul

Pupils of Lukodi Primary School in Gulu District line up for lunch. Kitchen staff are among many seemingly insignificant workers who are still grappling with lockdown woes as schools remain closed. Photo/file

In his 19th address to the nation on Covid-19, President Museveni mentioned that government would assess different viable options of supporting private school teachers, most of whom have not been paid since the lockdown on schools was instituted. Last week, a group of these teachers held a demonstration, protesting their dire condition.

Thankfully, government heard their cry and they might receive some relief at least until schools are opened. However, like a number of other workers who were made redundant by the lockdown, one can’t help but wonder about the support or non-teaching staff? Who’s looking out for them?
The President mentioned that government would have to make a major decision by September regarding the the lockdown on schools. Until then, these workers will live in suspense and even then, there’s no knowing what decision will be taken come September.
Support staff
According to Unesco, non teaching staff are persons employed by educational institutions who have no instructional responsibilities.

They say the definition can vary from one country to another, non-teaching staff generally include headteachers, principals and other administrators of schools, supervisors, counsellors, school psychologists, school health personnel, librarians or educational media specialists, curriculum developers, inspectors, education administrators at the local, regional, and national level, clerical personnel, building operations and maintenance staff, security personnel, transportation workers and catering staff.

Non-teaching staff are as engaged in the day-to-day running of schools and welfare of learners and teachers. Many of them, especially those at lower levels for instance the kitchen staff, janitors, etc do not earn much and yet their jobs are quite time consuming. They understandably cannot save much and therefore solely depend on their wages.
Harriet Kyomukama is a chef at New Times Primary School in Masaka. She lives in a single rented room with her four children  in Kimanaya, a Masaka suburb.

The mother of four who is also a single parent has been working as a chef for 10 years and is the breadwinner of the family.

Kyomukama divulges that after she was abandoned by her husband in 2014, she started taking care of her family with wages from the school. She says ever since schools were closed in March, she has had no pay and she is struggling with the children.

“ We have been thriving on help from well-wishers and neighbours  who know what we are going through. I wash clothes for my neighbours who pay between Shs2,000-Shs4,000 depending on how high the heap is.”

She says ever since she started washing clothes, she can afford to buy some food although she complains about the reliability of this new-found income source given that sometimes neighbours prefer to wash their own clothes.  
Kyomukama’s case is not unique to her. Many support staff in various schools and institutions in Uganda who have been abandoned by their employers during the lockdown are looking for odd jobs to survive.
The Covid-19 taskforce together with head teachers in some districts have come to the rescue of teachers forgetting most support staff who are part and parcel of the school arrangements.

Most teachers through their association’s heads have been   lobbying for relief food items from Covid -19 districts(s) task force and school administrations. Sadly, support staff seem to have been forgotten by their employers even if they too offer essential services to schools.

Support staff include, among others, cooks, cleaners, matrons, librarians, laboratory attendants, etc. They provide essential back-up services for the whole school (institutions) ranging from day to day office support to financial and school business management. 

Staff who work with teachers in the classroom to help pupils with their learning like teaching assistants, higher level teaching assistants, nursery nurses and cover supervisors are all affected.

Some support staff assert that given the grappling economic situations school administrators are indefinitely silent about paying support staff or providing any other kind of support to them.

Hamis Ssentamu, a cleaner at a university, in Masaka says that since the institution closed, he has never been paid and when he tries to ask the university administration for his arrears, he is told there is no money because the source of the institution’s funds are students who are now home and by the time of closure, 80 per cent had not cleared tuition fees.  
 “Although some of us have continued to work even during lock down, the institution has not considered paying us for four months and we are wondering whether our arrears during this lockdown will be paid,” he says
Christine Nampijja, another cook at Masaka Secondary School, says she is struggling to provide for her family.

 “After serving students I would take left over food home for my children but since the lock down, I have been struggling to find food. Even the school no longer pays since we stopped working,” she says
Nampijja notes that she has been looking for a source of income in vain. She is not sure how she will make it through the next months if schools don’t open soon.  

Henry Semajwali, a university cook discloses that he has resorted to digging for a fee to cater for his family. He says ever since the lockdown started, his bosses went silent and don’t pick up his calls.  
“We are about fives casual workers who got stuck in Masaka and we have approached the store manager to give us maize flour but our requests fall on a deaf ears,” he says.
Institutions speaks out
Hellen Kyomukama , director of New Times primary School, says the school thrives on school fees so once pupils are not paying they don’t have any other source of income.

“My school is a private one without any other funding. It thrives on school fees payment and by the time of closure, 95 per cent of the pupils had not paid their dues.

That renders us incapable of paying our workers,” she shares.
  Henry Semwezi, another school proprietor in Kyabakuza, a Masaka suburb, opines that Covid-19 has really hit the school business to the extent that most employees might suffer job loss.

What the task force says
According to Herman Sentongo , the Masaka Resident District Commissioner and also the chairman of the district task force, Masaka business community donated some food relief to the task force with over 40 tonnes of maize flour dispatched to different schools through school head teachers.

“We expected the school heads to include the support staff while distributing food but we are shocked to hear that most support staff were not considered,” he says.
   Ssenotongo adds that schools should consider support staff as essential employees because they offer crucial services to institutions and schools.

Major David Matovu, the Kyotera Resident District Commissioner, shares that he has received many complaints from support staff who were abandoned by their employers when the Covid-19 lockdown started. We have discovered that 80 per cent of support staff in Kyotera District are victims of this.

He adds that when he tried to contact some school head teachers and directors, most of them ‘disowned’ the workers.
  Most support staff have since started vending food in urban areas and have moved to rural areas to engage in agriculture to earn a living.  
The opening of schools is not a guanrantee that all support staff rendered redundant by the lockdown will have their ‘lives’ back as a number of schools have or plan to cut down on staff .

For support staff, actively engaging in alternative income generating activities might be the only way out at the moment.

Unfortunately, this is the tale of many workers not only in Uganda but worldwide.