BRATISLAVA Hundreds of schools in Slovakia were shut on Monday as over 11,000 teachers went on strike for higher salaries and larger school budgets, a rare hurdle for ruling leftists before a general election in March.
It was a rare show of discontent in the country where Prime Minister Robert Fico keeps a strong grip on political life and is tipped to win re-election on March 5. He leads opinion polls by over 20 percentage points ahead of his closest rival.
The government has taken advantage of the economic recovery to cement its popularity by welfare spending while keeping the budget deficit within EU rules.
Fico's pre-election handouts range from halving the sales tax on some groceries and hiking maternity benefits to giving coupons to poor families for holidays at state-owned hotels.
The government has agreed a 4 percent pay raise for teachers this year following a 5 percent raise for the past three years. But the protesters, who made up about 12 percent of all teachers in the country, say it is too little.
"Teachers' salaries were so low to start with that the raise promised by the government is not high enough," Branislav Kocan, spokesman for the Initiative of Slovak teachers, told Reuters.
"Many teachers work two jobs to make ends meet. Schools lack money to buy proper teaching aids. We will stay on strike until our requests are met," he said.
According to Education Ministry, average gross salary of elementary and secondary schools teachers was 997 euros per month ($1,080) in 2014, slightly above the national average of 858 euros. But teachers say the figure includes maximum bonuses that not all are eligible to receive.
The Initiative of Slovak Teachers is asking for a 140-euro raise this year followed by a 90-euro raise next year, 400 million euros for schools and several other reforms.
Fico said on Saturday his hands were tied as the budget for this year had already been approved.
"We want representatives of teachers to participate in preparation of the new government's manifesto ... there is nothing more I can do before the election," Fico said ahead of the planned strike, adding the funding of education was up for discussion after the election.
Data from the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) showed Slovakia spends 4.4 percent of its GDP on education, far below OECD average of 6.1 percent, and Slovak teachers are paid less than those in any other OECD country.
(Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Tom Heneghan)