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Submission: Education is essential, but not an essential service

23 July 2018

Equal Education submission: Education is essential, but not an essential service

On 15 June 2018 the Department of Labour’s Essential Services Committee (ESC) issued a public Notice highlighting the government’s intention to review its list of essential services, under the Labour Relations Act (LRA). Under review are “services rendered by educators and support staff in basic education, including Early Childhood Development”.

The resurgence of declaring basic education an essential service, follows a five-year hiatus by the government. In February 2013, former ANC Secretary-General, Gwede Mantashe reported, after an ANC lekgotla, that education would be declared an “essential service”. Several weeks later, in his State of the Nation Address, former President, Jacob Zuma said that, by declaring the education sector an essential service, the government was not looking to take away the constitutional right of teachers, as workers, to strike.  Yet, this is exactly what declaring a sector an essential service means.

This declaration would mean that it is permissible for government to prohibit strikes. The Labour Relations Act (LRA) defines an essential service as “a service the interruption of which endangers the life, personal safety or health of the whole or any part of the population”. So, it is important to know which services may be declared essential, and which may not.

Additionally, South Africa is a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).  The Freedom of Association Committee of the Governing Body of the ILO has found that the education sector does not constitute an essential service.

Equal Education’s (EE) written submission to the ESC, argues that declaring education an essential service, would not solve the fundamental and prevailing institutional and structural problems within the education sector. This declaration would not address, among others, issues of poor infrastructure, lack of resources and overcrowding in schools. Furthermore, declaring education an essential service undermines the legitimacy of the grievances that teachers try to raise, through the right to strike, including poor working conditions, lack of teaching resources, and low remuneration.

EE is wholly aware of that teachers carry a tremendous responsibility towards learners. We cannot ignore that the teaching profession is faced with challenges such as, teacher absenteeism, poor subject content knowledge,  and corruption in the appointment of principals, among others.

But, on the other side of the coin, we know that teachers are often expected to facilitate learning under extremely difficult circumstances, and to support learners in ways that extend far beyond curriculum delivery. As well as the difficulties in achieving  job satisfaction and remaining motivated, when all of society’s challenges are felt in the classroom.

As a country, we need to interrogate and address the causes that leave teachers dissatisfied with their income, their work environment and with the Department of Basic Education, to the detriment of learners.

Discussion and hard work, both within and outside the sector, is needed in order to improve academic outcomes in South Africa. We must strive for an education system that ensures that all learners in public schools receive quality education, and that teachers as the facilitators of this process, are treated with fairness, dignity and respect. However, declaring basic education an “essential service” is not a viable way of achieving what we envision.

For media queries:

Hopolang Selebalo (Equal Education Research Co-Head)

Noncedo Madubedube (Equal Education General Secretary)

Leanne Jansen-Thomas (Equal Education Head of Communications)


Leanne Jansen-ThomasSubmission: Education is essential, but not an essential service