The more than 240,000 striking teachers were on Friday told to return to work or their salaries will be withheld.
Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi and the Teachers’ Service Commission secretary, Mr Gabriel Lengoboini, said the government could not pay for work not done.
Addressing journalists at his Jogoo House office in Nairobi, Prof Kaimenyi and his Labour counterpart Kazungu Kambi said the government had fulfilled its obligations to teachers since 1997 and their hardline stance was baffling.
He said the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) should return to the negotiating table with a view to ending the five-day strike.
The Cabinet Secretary said Knut and the Kenya Union of Post-Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet) should declare the strike illegal or call it off.
“If they do not, as per the law, we will not pay. We will not pay them if they continue to strike in line with the best practices. We will not pay. That is the truth. We must respect our courts,” Prof Kaimenyi said.
But the chairman of the Kenya National Union of Teachers, Mr Wilson Sossion, dismissed the threat as a “joke and hopeless.”
He said by phone: “The minister cannot stop teachers’ salaries; in fact, he has no powers and, even if he did, the teachers would not be intimidated by the threat.”
He added: “We are used to those thinking they can intimidate teachers. We will treat him with the contempt he deserves.”
Mr Sossion dared the Cabinet Secretary to effect the directive if he wanted to feel the weight of the teachers. However, a few hours later at a separate meeting with the Kenya Editors Guild, Prof Kaimenyi denied he had directed that salaries of the striking teachers be stopped.
He sought to explain away his earlier position by stating that the government would only withdraw the salaries if the Industrial Court declares the strike illegal.
“As Jubilee Government, we will respect the law. We will adhere to the court decision,” Prof Kaimenyi said.
“If this strike is declared illegal, we shall ensure it is implemented. If it’s illegal, it is illegal. If the unions will ignore the courts, it will be a recipe for chaos in the country.”
The Cabinet Secretary said the teachers should embark on a collective bargaining agreement with the government as per the law.
And Mr Kambi added: “Teachers have enjoyed all their benefits from the 1997 agreement. What they are doing now is moving goal posts. We (Government) have also changed our game.”
Prof Kaimenyi said the Jubilee Government was ready to listen to the teachers’ demands and make an inclusive and consultative decision. “We should also involve other arms of government like Salaries and Remuneration Commission.”
Prof Kaimenyi said the teachers’ salaries had already been harmonised with those of other civil servants and that the dispute was only on allowances. He said that although their unions had a right to complain, they should follow the right channels, including moving to the Industrial Court instead of causing a crisis in the education sector by downing their tools.
He said the 1997 agreement between the government and teachers was replaced by that of 2003 and asked why the unions claimed they were not aware of this.
“Ignorance is no defence in our courts of law. How come that 10 years down the line, they now say they were not aware?” Prof Kaimenyi asked.
Mr Kambi has also disowned the agreement signed between the government and Knut in 1997. He declared the strike illegal. “The teachers only have a gazette notice that they have been holding onto for a period lasting three different governments. This notice can be varied by anyone at any time.”
Meanwhile, the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) has called on the teachers’ unions to end their weeklong strike and hold more talks with the government.