Arab educators and their unions ready to rebuild education and shape the future of their work

published 9 July 2021 updated 2 August 2021

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the education sector, the future of work, climate change action, the protection of human and trade union rights, and safeguarding democracy were at the heart of discussions during the 5th Conference of Education International's Arab Countries Cross-Regional Structure (ACCRS).

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the education sector in the region, aggravated by the failure on the global level to roll out vaccines in an equitable manner.

In his opening remarks to the virtual conference on July 8, Education International’s General Secretary, David Edwards, stated that child labour, where important progress had been made during the last generation, was increasing in many countries. In addition, progress on gender equity has slowed and violence against women skyrocketed during lockdowns.

“Setbacks need to be reversed and progress resumed before pandemic effects leave a permanent stain.”

David Edwards, Education International General Secretary

There have also been advances in the region as he International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the Violence and Harassment Convention Number 190 in 2019. This far-reaching Convention calls for the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work, and covers employers, suppliers, other business partners as well as third parties. Despite the pandemic, trade unions are campaigning hard for its ratification, Edwards explained.

Human and trade union rights under threat

The General Secretary also outlined how emergency measures imposed during the public health crisis have at times been too excessive or abused. Health measures should not be used to restrict freedom of expression or impose censorship, nor should they be used as an excuse to l limit freedom of association, i or the right to strike, he argued.

In the ACCRS region, “we have witnessed the repression of the Jordanian Teachers’ Association (JTA), and attacks on the union’s existence continue despite the release of union leaders”, he said. Restrictions on trade union rights in many other countries are increasing. In Morocco, for example, the government has invoked the COVID-19 crisis to deny workers their right to strike, he noted.

Union renewal different in every country

Edwards highlighted the theme of union renewal which was central to the conference.

“Union renewal is grounded in the exercise of freedom of association and the right to education. Both are levers to change the world,” he added. “There is no blueprint for union renewal. It will be different in every country, but we can learn from each other and show solidarity.”

Privatisation pushed during the pandemic

As private companies increased their push into education and especially in distance learning models, Edwards emphasized that “education happens in social relationships. It is not an assembly of vendors for individuals, but rather a healthy school community.”

Global trade union solidarity

Edwards said that the trade union community is not severed by national boundaries or regional barriers. He added “our common values and solidarity are the glue that holds us together. That is what Education International, and our regional structures are about”.

“Like nobody else, we can mobilise nationally, regionally, and globally to organise and educate. We can take the lead to move away from darkness and towards the light of social justice and a healthy, sustainable world,” he concluded.

ILO: Education is key for the future

Delivering the keynote address on “Future of education from a global perspective”, Oliver Liang, ILO Head of the Private and Public Services Sector Unit, reflected on the role of trade unions in supporting education and knowledge in shaping a desirable society.

“Education is key to imparting skills and preparing for work, but it also centred around human liberation, preparing for a meaningful life,” he underlined. “Teachers have the crucial duty to ensure that education is not indoctrination, but a means of human liberation.”

According to Liang, education is at a crossroads, with teachers asked to teach new skills and tackle topics like climate change and global citizenship.

On the use of new technologies in education, he insisted that equality in access to technologies is key and educators must be trained to deal with ethical and social implications of these technologies.

Social dialogue and the future of work

Achieving quality education during the pandemic demands the participation of teachers and their unions through social dialogue, Liang stressed.

Referring to the 2019 ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, he outlined the outcomes of the technical meeting on the Future of work in the education sector in the context of lifelong learning for all, skills and the Decent Work Agenda held in May 2021.

“The future of work in education must prepare students for work, for citizenship, and support their moral, psychosocial, and intellectual development,” he explained.

Acknowledging that “education is not a commodity, it is a public good and a public responsibility”, Liang said that “teachers will determine which direction we take with technology. They will ensure technologies serve students, not big companies”.

Study on Economic and Social Impacts of COVID-19 in Education

Education International’s Coordinator for Arab countries, Dalila El Barhmi, presented the Education International/International Trade Union Confederation/Global Union Federations’ joint Research on the Economic and Social Impacts of COVID-19 in Education and other sectors - A Study of Union Perspectives in the Arab Countries.

“We wanted to have a clear analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on working conditions for educators and on violations of human and trade union rights,” she said.

El Barhmi mentioned three aspects to the study:

  1. Learn more about union action during the pandemic.
  2. Get the union perspective on what unions and their members would need post-COVID-19.
  3. Document the level of social dialogue in Arab countries.

The study’s key findings highlighted:

  • An increase in precarious working conditions for educators,
  • A decrease in workers’ wellbeing, particularly impacting women,
  • Governmental unpreparedness to provide online education. The digital divide prevented too many students from learning,
  • The loss of teachers’ rights, like collective bargaining, as governments took advantage of the pandemic.

Among the diverse recommendations made by the global union federation’s study, El Barhmi highlighted:

  • A clear need for union development and organising,
  • Social dialogue required to achieve quality education in and beyond the pandemic,
  • Support needed for women teachers,
  • A need to put the wellbeing of teachers and students first,
  • Governments must ensure decent working conditions, including decent salaries, paid on time
  • Governments must respect education workers’ rights,
  • Governments need to consult teachers before posting educational programmes online.

The Education International’s ACCRS is composed of 28 education unions from 13 countries.