MONTEVIDEO - The Uruguayan government has declared education an essential public service to curtail strikes and other labor actions by teachers, Education and Culture Minister Maria Julia Muņoz said.
The policy change came out of a Cabinet meeting chaired by President Tabare Vazquez and was in response to a series of work stoppages by teachers over the past few months to demand an increase in salaries and funding for public elementary, secondary and higher education.
"The government and the Education and Culture Ministry have an obligation to ensure that all children and teenagers in the country attend class, and for that reason we are declaring all services related to teaching essential," Muņoz said.
The measure will be in effect for 30 days starting on Wednesday and applies to elementary and high schools, and the Trades University.
The executive order reclassifying teaching as an essential service makes it mandatory for employees to report to work, and the measure's legal foundation "is in the right to education that all Uruguayans have," the education minister said.
Last Friday, the PIT-CNT labor federation and Fenapes, the union representing high school teachers, reached an agreement with the government on wages, but the rank and file rejected the deal and new labor actions were announced over the weekend, Muņoz said.
"It is painful" to resort to the emergency decree, the education minister said.
The agreement reached on Friday "is good for education and for teachers' salaries," Muņoz said, adding that the government cannot afford to offer more at this point.
The president of the Association of High School Teachers, or ADES, in Montevideo, Emiliano Maneacen, told EFE that "the government is not telling the truth publicly" when it says there was an agreement last Friday.
"There was a proposal to be discussed, initialed as a proposal, but there was no agreement," Maneacen said.
The union leader called Monday's executive order "a big mistake" that makes negotiating more difficult and was "outside the legal framework."
The right to strike, guaranteed in the Uruguayan Constitution, can be restricted if a service is declared essential to ensure human life, safety or health.
"Stoppages and strikes in the education sector in no way affect life, safety or the health of our students," ADES said in a statement posted on its Web site.
After the executive order was announced, teachers, students and union leaders demonstrated outside the Labor Ministry and the Executive Office Building in Montevideo.
Teachers are seeking a starting salary of 30,000 pesos ($1,039) a month, up from the current 21,000 pesos ($727).