Senzo Mchunu. Picture: SOWETAN
Senzo Mchunu. Picture: SOWETAN

Public-service unions have warned the government that they will fight its attempts to freeze increases this year as the government battles to contain its huge wage bill.

The state spends about R600bn on salaries, representing 35% of its annual spending. The next round of public-sector wage negotiations is set to take place in the second half of the year.

In July last year, public service and administration minister Senzo Mchunu raised the ire of public-sector unions when he announced his department’s intentions to cut more than 30,000 jobs in an effort to reduce the public-service wage bill by more than R20bn.

The unions say their members deserve better salaries and perks and should not take the fall for the government’s shortfalls. They  blame the current fiscal chaos on state capture, which cost the country more than R500bn.

“Look, there was a very strong pleading from the minister for public-service unions to agree to some form of a pact for the government to freeze salary adjustments. He was complaining that the public-service wage bill is too high. But we made it clear to him that we will not agree to such a position,” said Reuben Maleka, an assistant GM at the Public Servants Association of SA (PSA).

The PSA, an affiliate of the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa), is SA’s second-biggest, public-sector union with more than 230,000 members.

Maleka said the effects of state capture could be the reason the reason the government wants to control its purse strings tightly. “But the workers were not beneficiaries of state capture, why are they being punished for that?

The SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said civil servants will never agree to no salary increase because for the past six years there hasn’t been a “real increase in their salaries”.

Not bloated

Public-sector employees deserve decent wages and housing allowances, among other perks, he said, poking holes in the narrative that the public sector is bloated. “The World Bank says the size of public service is a political issue that every government must address,” Vavi said.

“In SA, we have shortages of critical, front-line workers in so many areas, such as health, education, police and general public service. We don’t know where this propaganda about a bloated sector comes from.”

Casper Nanto, head of organising at the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), union federation Cosatu’s largest affiliate with about 277,000 members, said Cosatu has agreed on a road map on how to deal with the upcoming wage negotiations.

“We will go to our members to get a mandate then take our demands to the employer around July,” said Nanto. During an engagement with Mchunu, “they said to us, ‘Can we have a session to talk about available avenues that we can explore so that we maintain labour peace’, so this is an ongoing process”.

Mchunu is said to have recently briefed the cabinet on his ongoing engagements with the public-service unions about this year’s upcoming wage negotiations. However, he refused to divulge the status of his meetings with the unions.

“This is an ongoing engagement, that’s all I can say. Honestly, I’m not in a position to say anything on this issue because it’s an ongoing thing,” the minister said, adding that all labour stakeholders would be engaged.

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za