Through the use of Education International’s COVID-19 solidarity fund, its two affiliates in Mauritania have been able to conduct a series of joint school visits to meet with teachers. The initiative has helped boost the unions’ image and membership levels.
Building trade union strength
In addition to the emergency measures implemented to guarantee the health and safety of teachers and students, Mauritania’s basic education and secondary education unions, the SNEF and the SNES, decided to work together to strengthen their organisations over the long term. It was with this end in mind that they decided to intensify their unionisation campaigns to broaden the two unions’ membership bases, through a series of outreach visits.
As SNEF general secretary Hamadou Diallo explains: “Prior to the launch of this project, our main contact with teachers was largely limited to the general meetings held in the major cities. We used to invite teachers to come to our head offices during the holidays or at the end of each term, but very few responded to these invitations. Thanks to the support of EI and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, we have been able to go and meet up with teachers, in their schools, much more than in the past.
Teams of two trade unionists were formed in all the constituencies of the capital, Nouakchott, as well as in Kiffa and Kaédi. The SNEF and the SNES then began by bringing together all the team members for meetings before embarking on the visits. The teams would then go and visit the schools on their days off. They would meet the teachers in their staff rooms during break times, providing them with documents and gathering their questions.
Building knowledge of teachers’ concerns on the ground
Each team would draw up a report after each visit. Their visits were very much appreciated and provided an opportunity to confirm the teachers’ main concerns: postings, career progression, pay and employee benefits, as well as questions about what the union is able to offer them.
“We found that some teachers had not been promoted for ten years and hadn’t made any demands! We intend to continue with these visits, which really help improve our union’s image and have already led to an increase in membership levels,” said Diallo.
Referring to comments made by teachers during school visits, SNES general secretary Sidi Idoumou Boudide firmly condemned the pressure that teachers reported they have come under from school heads, to dissuade them from joining a union. Some teachers have been threatened with punitive measures linked to union activities.
Crucial information about trade union rights and rights at work
For Boudide, the questions raised by some of the teachers highlight the need to keep up efforts to explain the role of a union and to widely disseminate basic information about teachers’ rights. The idea is to enlighten teachers with regard to questions such as: “Do contract teachers and supervisory staff have the right to join trade unions and to respond to their calls for strike action?” or “Does the Ministry have the right to withhold pay for days when strike action is taken?”.
The disastrous impact of the COVID-19 crisis on teachers
The closure of Mauritania’s schools on 16 March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic was accompanied by the suspension of private sector teachers’ pay. The closure of roads and borders between the various regions of the country also left most teachers stranded in their schools.
The unions point out that, deprived of income from private schools, which are mainly staffed by public sector teachers, many have been left in near-total destitution, with only their meagre public sector pay to live on.
In addition, union members have been almost entirely cut off from their organisations. Trade unionists gradually grew accustomed to communicating with members via WhatsApp, but few teachers were regularly connected and able to share information with those not connected or to inform the union about specific situations. The level of disconnectedness was even greater for the many non-unionised teachers.
Immediate trade union action to keep in touch with members
Before the authorities closed the schools, the unions suspended protest activities that had been planned before the pandemic broke out (strikes, marches). They met with ministers to submit proposals and demands related to the situation of teaching staff. They also organised sit-ins to press for the opening of roads to allow stranded teachers to return to their homes, and succeeded.
They have sought to do everything possible to keep in touch with members and have mobilised the unions’ regional coordinators to provide as much support as possible to all teachers in difficulty.
Education International and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation will continue to provide the Mauritanian affiliates with the financial support needed for the next step in their action plan, which is to improve the unions’ communication through their respective websites and social media platforms.