Polish teachers double down on strike for higher wages

An estimated couple of thousand teachers from across Poland demonstrated outside the education ministry Tuesday, two weeks into a national strike for higher pay that is challenging the right-wing government in an election year.

Protesters carried orange signs with black exclamation points as well as banners with slogans such as "high expectations, low pay," "we're fed up" and "stop belittling teachers".

Most schools across the EU member of 38 million people have been closed since teacher unions launched the strike to call for a 30 percent salary hike.

An experienced teacher in Poland gets a gross base salary of nearly 3,500 zloty (816 euros, $918), or around 70 percent of the average monthly wage, according to the ZNP Polish Teachers Union.

"We want to make a decent living and to be treated with respect," said Monika Okoniewska, a 36-year-old teacher from the town of Lesznowola on the outskirts of Warsaw.

She told AFP that the government has been brushing off their demands, a view echoed by retired principal Zygmunt Chlebowski, who bussed down to the capital with others from the northern city of Torun.

"When it comes to teachers, there's nothing worse than to ignore them. We listen to every student, no matter who they are," said the 72-year-old ZNP member whose family includes several teachers.

Chlebowski called for politicians to stop meddling in education, saying reforms introduced by the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party "have ruined the educational system that had guaranteed a certain level of quality."

The government and unions have met several times for talks to no avail. The PiS has proposed another meeting for Friday.

Teachers have long complained of low wages in Poland, where public sector salaries have struggled to catch up with private sector earnings after the country shed communism.

The PiS has rolled out a raft of generous social spending measures ahead of European elections in May and a general election later in the year to shore up popularity.

Focusing its campaign on bread-and-butter issues, the party has passed a pension hike and vowed to expand a child allowance it launched after taking office in late 2015.

It has also promised no income tax for employees under 26 years of age, lower income tax for pensioners and special allowances for farmers.

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