Jordan's striking teachers reject government call to return to work

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* Striking teachers defiant despite threats their jobs at stake

* Crisis tests government's ability to maintain fiscal prudence

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Jordanian teachers on Tuesday defied a government call to end their four-week nationwide strike over pay, in a deepening crisis that threatens to further strain the heavily indebted country's state finances.

The powerful Jordanian Teachers' Syndicate on Saturday rejected as "bread crumbs" modest pay increases offered by Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz in a bid to end the strike, which is already the longest by state employees in decades.

The strike comes as Jordan struggles to implement tough IMF-backed fiscal reforms.

Only a quarter of Jordan's 4,000 public schools opened on Tuesday and a fraction of its 1.5 million or so students turned up for lessons, in what economists said was a blow to the Razzaz government, which came to power in 2018 after street protests over IMF-backed austerity measures.

Scuffles broke out in several schools between parents and striking teachers, according to two witnesses, and state media reported that many teachers had prevented pupils from entering classrooms, asking them instead to go home.

Many parents are not sending their children to school out of solidarity with the striking teachers.

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The teachers' union, which has 100,000 members, is demanding a 50% pay hike. Razzaz says pay increases that took effect this month averaging $35 per month were the most Jordan could afford.

His government has said teachers could lose their jobs over what it describes as an illegal action.

The teachers, whose average salary is around 450 dinars ($630) per month, say they have fallen behind others in a bloated public sector plagued by corruption and mismanagement.

Salaries eat up much of the $13 billion state budget in a country which has one of the world's highest levels of government spending relative to the size of its economy.

The government fears that new pay demands by other public sector employees, including doctors, and pension increases for retired soldiers would wreck efforts to restore fiscal prudence as a basis for a sustained economic recovery.

Story continues

The fiscal plan agreed with the International Monetary Fund aims to cut Jordan's public debt of $40 billion, equivalent to 95 percent of GDP. (Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi Editing by Gareth Jones)

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