SALARY negotiations between South Africa’s government and public servants for 2021 have gone awry. Trade unions representing public servants have tabled a wage increase proposal of over 7%.
Meanwhile, the government is doubling down on a three-year pay freeze. After bending over backwards for public servants in awarding them inflation-busting pay increases for over a decade – which accelerated the deterioration of the fiscus – the government has now drawn a line in the sand.
For the second year in a row, the government is adamant on a salary freeze for South Africa’s 1.3 million public servants during the 2021/22 financial year, putting it on a nasty collision course with the country’s trade union movement.
The government and trade unions representing public servants are locked in ongoing talks over their pay increases at the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC), where both parties negotiate terms of employment. For the 2021/2022 financial year, the government (represented by the Department of Public Service and Administration) formally tabled a proposal to not increase salaries at all at the PSCBC on Thursday 15th April.
Trade unions have retaliated and threatened industrial action that would result in public servants, such as doctors and nurses, calling a strike as the country faces a Covid-19 health crisis.
‘We will shut down public service until the government takes our demands seriously,’ said Reuben Maleka, assistant GM of the Public Servants Association (PSA), which represents state workers including teachers, attorneys, police officers and others.
‘Public servants can no longer pay the price for the country’s economic woes fuelled by rampant fraud, corruption, and mismanagement,’ said Maleka.
Business Maverick understands that Cosatu-affiliated trade unions have also threatened to go on strike. Since 2006, the trade unions have done their job by getting salary increases for public service members, while state negotiators put the National Treasury in a bind, as it has to source the money to fund salary adjustments.
The PSA and other trade unions are hoping to force the government’s hand to reconsider its salary freeze position ahead of the next meeting at the PSCBC, scheduled for 23rd April. The PSA, other trade unions affiliated to Cosatu, and the Federation of Unions of South Africa have tabled a salary increase proposal of consumer price inflation plus 4%.
The Reserve Bank expects consumer price inflation in 2021 to average 4.3% – meaning that trade unions want public servants to be awarded a salary increase of more than 7%.
This would be an across-the-board increase, as all public servants – regardless of their employment level – would be in line for higher remuneration.
Other demands include a pay-out amounting to 12% of a public servant’s salary if they are affected by Covid-19; special leave during the December holiday period; leave for public servants who are victims of gender-based violence – and the housing allowance benefit to be increased by R2,500.
The month of April is important for the government as annual salary adjustments are made on April 1st for all public servants. But salary adjustments were not processed in 2020 and 2021 for public servants because of the compensation squabble with their employer.
The argument has intensified as trade unions have approached the Constitutional Court to challenge the government’s decision not to implement salary increases dating back to 2020.
A three-year salary agreement – entered into between the government and trade unions in 2018 at the PSCBC that ended in 2020 – proposes increases of between 4.4% and 5.4% for public servants (depending on their pay scale). If trade unions emerge victorious at SA’s highest court, the government will be on the hook for back pay for 2020 salary adjustments.
The possible victory will also embolden trade unions to push through salary increase proposals tabled for 2021.
The government is adamant that it has run out of road and can no longer afford further salary increases. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has reaffirmed the decision to implement a three-year salary freeze in the public sector, to slash government spending by R300 billion and bring ballooning state debt of R3.95 trillion under control.
Set at a full R650.4 billion for the 2021/22 financial year, the remuneration of public servants has become the largest component of government spending.
The National Treasury has argued that public servants are remunerated handsomely – and have enjoyed job security during the Covid-19 pandemic, which threatened the livelihoods of private-sector workers. According to National Treasury data, the average annual public sector remuneration more than tripled between 2006/07 and 2019/20, rising from R136,000 a year to more than R415,000.
The Treasury said this represents an increase of more than 45% after adjusting for inflation over the 13-year period.
- The South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) says it has been ‘vindicated’ by the labour court in its dispute with Rand Water over the payment of incentive bonuses.
Rand Water had approached the court on Wednesday, seeking an urgent interdict to prevent Samwu members from embarking on an indefinite strike over the bonus and other demands.
The union said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon that the court had ‘lambasted the employer’ for failing to meet the union to solve this issue as a matter of urgency.
‘The judge further urges parties to meet and come up with a settlement agreement. As per the settlement agreement which had become an order of the court, the employer has agreed to withdraw the memorandum which unilaterally changed the conditions of workers. As a sign of good faith we have also postponed our strike until April 28th,’ it said.
Samwu resolved to embark on an indefinite protected strike after, it charged, Rand Water had unilaterally changed workers’ conditions of service, in particular withdrawing incentive bonuses which had been received for the past 17 years.
Earlier on Wednesday, about 60 workers dressed in red T-shirts and carrying placards gathered outside Rand Water.
In the statement after the Labour Court hearing, Samwu warned it ‘cannot guarantee that residents and industries that are served by Rand Water in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West will have running water’, if their demands were not met.
‘The decision that we have taken as SAMWU to go on strike is a painful one as we know that taps will definitely run dry in all areas that are serviced by Rand Water. However this is noble, justifiable and well within our rights.
SAMWU continued: ‘We, however, as a trade union will not allow the employer to bully workers by unilaterally changing employees’ conditions of service without any consultation whatsoever. Our members and their interests come first.
‘An ultimatum has already been given to the employer to immediately reverse this anti-worker practice and restore all terms and conditions of employment, including incentive bonuses.
‘Our attempt to engage the employer was also that we ensure that there is labour stability at the water board. It however seems as though the union has been talking to people who are not interested in seeing residents and businesses having uninterrupted water supply.
‘We firmly believe that our demands are truly justified and important to the livelihoods of the entire workforce of the utility.
‘Rand Water should actually consider this strike as a dry run for what is coming their way when SAMWU will be presenting its salary and wage demands at the Amanzi Bargaining Council (ABC): which is inclusive of all of the country’s 12 water boards.
‘As mandated by the unions’ recently held National Collective Bargaining Conference and the subsequent Special Central Executive Committee meeting, SAMWU will be presenting the following demands in the the ABC as follows:
1. A single year salary and wage agreement.
2. R4,000 salary increase for all workers under the auspices of the SALGBC.
3. R15,000 sectoral minimum wage.
4. A R3,500 housing allowance for all workers.
5. 80% employer medical aid contribution and 20% employee contribution.
6. Six months fully paid maternal leave and 1 month fully paid paternity leave.
7. A 25% employer contribution towards pensions.
‘We want to categorically and unambiguously state to Rand Water and all other water boards that SAMWU is ready to defend its members and will not stand idle when their gains are being reversed,’ the SAMWU Greater Vaal Region statement concluded.