Pashinian made the controversial statement on Thursday as his government decided to raise the country’s minimum monthly wage from 68,000 to 75,000 drams ($185) in January.
“If a person lives off a monthly wage of 75,000 drams, let’s understand what it means,” he said. “It means that that person did not get proper education. It doesn’t mean anything else.”
Pashinian, who himself does not hold a university degree, also claimed that many of the lowest-income Armenians have for decades avoided retraining courses to gain more knowledge and improve their qualifications.
The remarks caused outrage among many public sector employees and teachers in particular. But virtually all of them declined to openly denounce the prime minister for fear of losing their jobs.
The figure cited by Pashinian is close to the average salary in Armenian schools. Employees of public libraries and similar entities subordinate to local governments earn even less.
“We don’t speak up because there is ‘democracy’ in our country and we can lose our 75,000 drams befitting the undereducated class,” one such provincial librarian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “I’m sure that nobody will protect our interests us if we lose our jobs.”
“I have three university degrees and I earn less than a cleaner does because that’s what the government decided,” said one education worker in Vanadzor who also did not want to be identified. “Now the same government accuses us of not being well educated.”
The young woman said that she and many other teachers have to work two or more jobs in order to be able to make more than 75,000 drams per month.
“I can’t afford to go home right after classes, take rest and spend time with my family,” she explained. “There is no such thing. We work all day long.”
This is a familiar story for Armenian musicians employed by mostly state-funded symphony orchestras. Ruben Asatrian, a well-known conductor, works for five such orchestras, runs one of Yerevan State Conservatory’s departments and also teaches at various music schools.
“My multiple jobs … allow me to do well in the sphere of arts,” Asatrian said, speaking before a concert in Vanadzor. “But an ordinary musician who works at one orchestra has to teach in music schools in order to somehow make ends meet.”
According to government data, the average monthly wage in Armenia stood at almost 240,000 drams ($590) in July. It is significantly lower in the public sector.
Pashinian has been widely criticized for sharply raising the salaries of government ministers and other high-rankings officials and paying them lavish bonuses after coming to power in 2018. The monthly ministerial remuneration was doubled to 1.5 million drams in 2019.