Teacher for love, hair dresser for money: Dealing with low pay in Venezuela

By Carlos Seijas Meneses

Caracas, Jan 24 (EFE).- In the classroom, Lourdes Villarreal, a 56-year-old Venezuelan professor, teaches Performing Arts and Spanish. At home, she cuts, dries, straightens and tints hair, along with baking cakes, all to augment her scanty income as a teacher, a problem that has sparked many protests by the teachers’ union in recent weeks.

On a table in her home in a residential neighborhood in Caracas, Villarreal has a book, a notebook and notes about her students and some of her teaching materials. To the side, there is a hair dryer, an iron, a plastic container in which to prepare hair dye and a brush, along with other things that she uses when she puts down her blackboard chalk and puts on her hair dresser hat.

“I earn my money in this way,” she told EFE, adding that her customers pay $5 for having her dry their hair and up to $30 for receiving a full hair treatment.

Many pastry cooks, taxi drivers, waiters and, in Villarreal’s case, hair dressers in Venezuela these days are, first and foremost, teachers or professors. This is the reality among educators in the South American country due to the low pay teachers receive, a situation that forces many to work at other activities, get out of teaching altogether or emigrate, and this has affected the quality of education, with the International Day of Education being celebrated on Tuesday.

From December to January – a period during which the dollar got precipitously stronger – Villarreal’s biweekly teaching salary fell from $18.58 to $14.74 at the prevailing exchange rates, but her family of three needs about $80 per week just to feed themselves, according to her calculations.

She opened her refrigerator, which was practically empty, and said that in the early 2000s she had it “full of chicken, meat, whatever we wanted,” but now it just contains “water and light,” except for a tray of protein items.

According to a 2022 survey conducted by the Network of Scholastic Observers with the Con La Escuela organization, in which 329 educators in six Venezuelan states participated, 49.54 percent of them have a second source of income or another salaried job, meaning that “this has become a daily and necessary practice for teachers.”

In addition, 45.4 percent of those surveyed said that their additional work has no relation to teaching.

Belkis Bolivar, the national director of the Venezuelan Teachers Federation (FVM), told EFE that given “this whole debacle in the educational system, teachers have gotten into other positions that produce better income for them.”

Villarreal recalled that in 2004 when she started working she earned enough to fill the freezer and the cupboards, to buy other basic products and to pay the bank back for the loans she took out to travel in the interior of Venezuela, as well as to Cuba, Panama and Costa Rica.

“Right now, it’s sad what’s happening. Here, there are teachers who, if they eat lunch they don’t have dinner, and I have colleagues who are young but are getting old prematurely because they’re not eating well … What we’ve got here is hunger,” said Villarreal, who added that educators don’t have medical insurance or funeral insurance.

Many of her colleagues have not experienced the economic recovery proclaimed by the government, which blames its problem in paying teachers on the international economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela, although the State has reported a rise in tax collections and in export earnings.

According to an educational analysis made by Devtech Systems, in association with ANOVA Policy Research and the Andres Bello Catholic University (UCAB), the number of teachers in Venezuela fell from 669,019 in 2018 to 502,681 in 2021, a plunge of 24 percent.

Of the 166,338 teachers who are no longer in the educational system, 68,023 emigrated and 98,315 simply left the profession.

And if one computes the number of administrative and non-teaching personnel within the educational sector, Bolivar said, there are about 700,000 workers, although in 2018 that figure was over one million.

This is also a problem that has affected the education of young people, since “there is a deficit of teachers of about 40 percent,” above all in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, languages and physical education, according to the FVM report.

“The teachers who remain (on the job) are those who are supporting education … and when they leave their schools, they go to another job to be able to take care of their kids the next day, to pay for transportation, for teaching items, for recharging their telephones,” she said.

EFE csm/bp

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