Over the last five years, JACKSON BETIHAMAH has been labeled a rubble rouser, stirring up strikes at Kyambogo University, and later as chairman of the public universities non-teaching staff as chairman of Public Universities Non-Teaching Staff Executive Forum (Puntsef).
However, last week Moses Talemwa found a more amiable Betihamah.
The government recently acceded to your call for salary enhancement. What is the latest?
The government has finally fulfilled our demand, especially for pay rise and enhancement for the non-teaching staff.
This came out of the presidential directive, after the president instructed the [ministry of Finance] on September 3, 2015. We are really happy and we appreciate the action of the president and the finance ministry.
Whereas the ministry of finance had delayed to implement this decision, the money was finally paid to our accounts in July, thanks to some support from our minister Janet Museveni.
So, all is well now?
No. There is still a problem of arrears for 2016/17 for all non-teaching staff. When we met the president at State House Entebbe on August 15, 2016, he asked me if the arrears would be accepted in the following financial year, and we agreed that as long as the payment for equalization of salaries [with academic staff] has been made, then the arrears could be made later [in the next financial year].
So, I’m urging all finance officers of all public universities to compute the arrears for the 2016/17 and submit them to Puntsef so we can agree and forward to the ministry of finance. We want this money processed within this budget. So, we are clearly working with a looming deadline. We don’t want to be accused of being late.
Do you have an idea how much we are talking about?
I can’t be specific because different universities are paid differently. If they use the current circular, which was used to calculate our current enhancement. So, this can be used as a baseline.
What about the NUEI staff who are complaining?
It is only a section of NUEI [National Union of Educational Institutions] who are complaining about enhancement in pay.
The government has accepted their concerns, and has already put it in writing that Shs 4bn will be allocated to all non-teaching staff, but specifically support staff, in the coming financial year. This will take priority before any other categories of staff see another pay rise.
Talk specifically about the challenges facing support staff at Makerere and Kyambogo.
The problem affects other public universities, but Makerere University is in the worst case scenario. It has an archaic salary structure, which has categories like M22 [who are paid very little], which you don’t find in other universities.
For instance, in Kyambogo we start at M15. As Puntsef, the revolution has seen all categories enhanced to some extent – even the ones in Makerere.
The issues they raise that some administrators remunerated themselves more than those in the lower salary scales is too much of a stretch. It was the permanent secretary of the ministry of public service, who came up with the salary structure used by the ministry of finance to make that salary implementation.
So, what is the solution to this problem?
The challenge is that it was based on Makerere University’s salary structure, which is the least-paying structure of all public universities. So, it is affecting people in Gulu, Busitema and Mbarara, who have better-paying salary structures within the same scales.
They all feel suffocated – but the government order will [bring] about some changes. The solution is there; as salary enhancements come up, they will finally catch up with everyone else by 2020, when the last installment comes through.
There are public concerns that Puntsef is a rubble rouser – that you are in the habit of disrupting university operations with strikes.
Well, remuneration is a major motivator for working. You can’t have disparities in pay in the same salary scales and expect people to work harmoniously.
When Puntsef started its activities, we first appealed to our respective vice chancellors, university councilors and even government officials. We even appealed to parliament. We were routinely ignored, and by this time there was no strike in place.
In any case we have had only one strike since – which we keep suspending at some level, as we wait for the salary enhancement. Even now, our strike is presently on suspension. Once our arrears are paid, as chairperson, I shall call our executive and we shall decide whether to call off the strike.
I understand you are considering embracing private university staff. Any truth to this?
We are aware of what is happening in private universities; especially how the employees are being marginalized and exploited. But the people who work there also suffer from inferiority complex.
They are afraid of coming forward to challenge the university management [in private universities] for fear that their contracts may not be renewed. For instance, we know of a lecturer at Kampala University whose contract was not renewed after he suggested the formation of a union there.
But we are already working on the formation of a national union for all university workers, which will embrace them as well.
As Puntsef, we intend to graduate from just non-teaching staff to encompass all university staff. We are already studying examples in Ghana and Nigeria, so that we can address university employers as one body.