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NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, July 26) – Public schools in Tonga closed today as more than 1,400 teachers joined the country’s first public workers strike.

After two days of uncertainty, the government 's 115 primary schools and eight of its secondary schools are taking a two-week holiday scheduled for next month early.

Of Tonga's 1,600 government teacher,s over 1,000 are based in Tongatapu.

On the first day of the strike, July 22, the Ministry of Education recorded that throughout Tonga only 114 Secondary school teachers turned up at work with 134 working on Monday July 25.

The Director of Education, Viliami Takau, said that they decided on the early school-break because in the last two days of the strike students had lost a lot of their classroom time. They were hopeful that when school reopened on August 9 for its final term the strike would be resolved.

"At this stage this is the best we can do since the strike badly affected Tonga College and Tonga High School as well as some other primary schools in Nuku'alofa due to absentee teachers," Viliami said today.

On Tongatapu only 33 primary school teachers were at school on July 22 and 41 were working yesterday.

Viliami said that this year Government schools planned their two weeks holiday break from August 19 – September 4. By bringing the holidays forward it means that Term 3 will be longer for all of the schools but it would not disrupt this year’s Christmas break in mid December, he said.

Striking civil servants who are "seeking justice" fear that unqualified staff may be put in by government to keep Tonga's ports of entry open this week, and they warn that that planes and ships might be stranded.

Meanwhile, airlines and shipping companies have continued to serve Tonga.

The companies were advised in a letter from the Interim Committee for Dissatisfied Civil Servants on Monday, that because of industrial action the Quarantine and Customs operations at the ports of entry throughout Tonga would be closed down from July 25. Both the heads of these two sections are part of the industrial action.

"Please kindly advise your respective counterparts overseas of same to avoid any of your planes and/or ships being stranded here in Tonga," said the letter signed by Maliu Takai, vice chairman, Sione Vuna Fa'otusia, secretary and Mele T. 'Amanaki, assistant secretary of the Interim Committee for Dissatisfied Civil Servants.

They were concerned that unqualified personnel may be put into these operations by government in order to keep the ports open.

"However, for bio-safety and security purposes of the overseas destinations of your planes and/or ships, we advise that the qualifications and experiences of those officers that Government may put in these operations are questioned as all the qualified personnel are part of this industrial action," they advised.

The industrial action continues as the civil servants try to resolve "grievances over the government's new salary structure and subsequent salary adjustments".

"We note with deepest sympathy that our seeking for justice will have a great impact on your operations and we apologise for any inconvenience cause," the Interim Committee said.

Meanwhile, Air New Zealand's flights have arrived and departed as scheduled since the civil servants strike began on Friday. Passenger baggage is being cleared, but there have been problems with commercial cargo, which cannot be cleared at the moment.

The Forum Shipping Agencies expected the Forum Samoa to berth at Nuku'alofa as scheduled early Wednesday morning.

July 27, 2005

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