THE LABOUR Court in Johannesburg will be the setting for South Africa’s trade unions and the African National Congress (ANC) government to fight it out over salary increases for about 1.2 million public servants.
Trade unions are presenting a united front to get salary increases of between 4.3% and 5.4%, but the government is not budging, saying it is broke.
The battle over inflation-beating salary increases between the government and trade unions has intensified.
Until recently, trade unions were divided on their approach to persuade the government to deliver on its promise of giving public servants salary increases of between 4.3% and 5.4% – depending on their employment level and take-home pay – from 1st April 2020.
However, public servants – including doctors, nurses, teachers, police, correctional services officers and workers in three spheres of government – have not received salary increases in the current year because the government says it is broke.
Organised labour and the government have been in a dispute since February when Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced a controversial plan to cut the public sector wage bill by R160-billion over the next three years.
The National Treasury estimated that salary increases for public servants in the 2020/21 financial year would cost the government an additional R37.8-billion, pushing the wage bill to take up nearly 60% of tax revenue compared with 42% in 2019/2020.
Trade unions are now joining forces to challenge the government, which wants to renege on the promise of salary increases because public finances are deteriorating.
The promise is part of a three-year wage agreement on annual salary increases that the government and trade unions signed in 2018 at the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council, (PSCBC) where both parties usually negotiate terms of employment. The year 2020 is the last leg of the wage agreement.
To enforce contractual terms of the wage agreement, which is still binding on the government, trade unions launched two separate processes.
The Confederation of South African Trades Unions (COSATU)-affiliated unions hauled the government into dispute resolution processes of conciliation and arbitration at the PSCBC.
The COSATU-affiliated unions are the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU), the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU), the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (DNOSA), and the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (PPCRU).
Meanwhile, at least five trade unions didn’t join the COSATU-affiliated unions at the Council. Instead, the Public Servants’ Association (PSA), the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA (NPTOSA), Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of SA (HOSPTUSA), the SA Teachers’ Union (SATU), and the National Teachers’ Union (NTU) have approached the Labour Court in Johannesburg.
The COSATU-affiliated unions, whose negotiations with the government at the Council have not been successful, will now join the other trade unions at the Labour Court – further worsening the relationship between organised labour and the government.
The government, in this case, is mainly the Public Service and Administration Department, which oversees the terms of employment in the public sector.
At the end of August 2020, the Department launched an application at the Labour Court, asking it to declare the enforcement of the wage agreement ‘unconstitutional’.
This forced the Department’s ongoing negotiations with the COSATU-affiliated unions at the PSCBC to be postponed pending the conclusion of the recently launched Labour Court application.
The application also means that negotiations between the government and trade unions about the compensation of public servants over the next three years might be delayed. These negotiations usually start in October.
The COSATU-affiliated unions had until Monday 14 September to respond to the application.
In its application, the Department said the additional expenditure of R37.8-billion on salary increases for public servants in 2020/21 had not been approved by Parliament, and without Parliament’s approval, the enforcement of the wage agreement ‘amounts to unauthorised expenditure’ under the Public Finance Management Act, thus making it ‘unlawful’.
The Department has also used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to not enforce the wage agreement.
‘Government is under a constitutional duty under the current Covid-19 pandemic and associated health, social and economic crises, to relieve distress and hardship suffered by the poor, unemployed and socially vulnerable, most of whom are not public service employees.
‘Enforcing clause 3.3 (of the wage agreement that guarantees salary increases) would result in taking away funding allocated by Parliament for the purposes described above to the detriment and prejudice of the poor, unemployed and socially vulnerable,’ it claimed.
But trade unions are not buying this, asking how is it the government can now want to declare a three-year wage agreement unconstitutional when it signed and agreed to its terms in 2018.
‘The government was happy to pay public servants salary increases over the past two years under the same agreement that it now wants to declare unconstitutional for its last leg. This is crazy,’ one union leader said.
Meanwhile, the big National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) convened a Special National Executive Committee meeting on the 12th September 2020 to discuss the upcoming full-blown strike in all the sectors it organises.
In a statement, the Special NEC affirmed ‘as a matter of principle’ that ‘the withdrawal of our labour power in all the sectors we organise remains a strategic and tactical approach to defend collective bargaining, the right to strike and a tool to protect our members and workers in general.
‘NEHAWU will continue to implement its programme of action until all demands are responded to adequately and positively for the benefit of its members and workers.’
The union is demanding:
- Compliance to the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS)Act;
- Available stocks of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs);
- The establishment of and functional workplace health and safety committees;
- The impact of the shortage of staff in workplaces be immediately addressed;
- Training of workers and frontline workers in dealing with Covid-19.
The union statement continued: ‘After submitting the memorandum of demands on the 3rd September 2020 to the President of the Republic, Cyril Ramaphosa, through the eight Premiers, the Speaker of the National Parliament, and directly to the Union Buildings, unfortunately the national union has yet to receive a response to the demands from the President.
‘He was given seven days to respond which expired on the 10th September 2020. On the 11th September NEHAWU wrote to the Office of the President to remind him about the ultimatum which had expired and informing him about our intention to withdraw labour power.
‘Disappointingly, the Office of the President has only acknowledged the receipt of our letter and nothing about responding to our demands.
‘The national union will continue with lunch hour demonstrations in all workplaces particularly in strategic workplaces across all provinces whilst continuing discussions with the Office of the President or representatives appointed by the President to respond to the demands contained in our memorandum.
‘Simultaneously, the national union will continue to have sectoral meetings with different Ministers of different departments on all our demands. These meetings include the Ministers of Health, Employment and Labour, Social Development, Higher Education and Training, and the Public Service and Administration …
‘Another Special National Executive Committee meeting will be convened in two weeks’ time to receive a detailed report on the discussions and the outcomes of these meetings in order to assess whether or not they are making headway in responding adequately and positively to our demands for the benefit of our members and workers.
‘In the meantime, the national union will be intensifying its preparations and plans for a full blown strike which will affect both private and public health, parastatals, public service administration, higher education, including both private and public social development.
‘Both the 3rd October which is the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) International Day of Action and the COSATU general strike on the 7th October 2020 will be integrated into our strike action plans.
‘NEHAWU remains unwavering in its struggle for government to honour the last leg of the three year wage agreement signed at the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC) in 2018.
‘Allowing government to renege on the full implementation of the binding agreement will further disadvantage workers and kill collective bargaining.’