NAIROBI (Reuters) - A Kenyan union representing more than 200,000 teachers on Wednesday called off a pay strike in its fourth week, reaching a partial agreement with authorities hours after the government shut schools indefinitely.
The teachers' union had demanded that the state body responsible for teachers' pay implement what they say is a 1997 deal on housing, medical and transport allowances, despite pleas by the country's president for wage restraint.
After taking the helm of the country in April, President Uhuru Kenyatta said east Africa's biggest economy could not afford a bigger public wage bill, but he immediately faced calls from members of parliament for higher salaries.
The MPs secured generous benefits although their salary demands were not met, prompting other public workers, including teachers and civil servants, to demand better pay.
The government took a tough stance towards the primary school teachers, closing schools and warning that strikers would be sacked and not be paid for time on strike.
The union said it was "ending the war" and asked teachers to report back to work on Thursday. It was unclear when the government would order schools to re-open.
"The government has agreed to pay teachers the commuter (transport) allowance which we have been demanding all along," Kenya National Union of Teachers chairman Wilson Sossion told the media after meeting deputy president William Ruto.
Ruto however said the transport allowance would be paid in two phases and not in a lump sum as demanded by the union.
"The deal you have been given by the Teachers Service Commission on commuter allowance cannot be added or reduced ... we are operating within a very tight budget," Ruto said.
The government agreed to hire 10,000 new teachers as demanded by the union, to help ease the burden in congested schools.
Ruto told the union to negotiate a medical allowance package with the state medical insurance fund, and seek higher house allowances from a state agency which sets public worker's pay.
At the height of the strike, union officials representing striking teachers defied a court order that termed their industrial action illegal. They risk being fined or jailed, and have asked the government to drop the case against them.
Teachers' salaries range from about 16,000 to 142,000 shillings ($180 to $1,600) a month. They are seeking extra allowances on top of those salaries, with inflation running at about 5 percent.
The strike has seen primary schools lose out on learning time, which could harm children's performance at national year-end examinations. Private schools have not been affected, because teachers in those schools are not unionised.
($1 = 86.9000 Kenyan shillings)
Additional reporting by Humphrey Malalo; editing by Andrew Roche