The government has rejected most wage and conditions of employment demands tabled by public sector labour unions at the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council.
Government negotiators told unions on Thursday that the state could only afford to adjust salaries as per the consumer price index (CPI) for employees on levels one to 10 and CPI minus 1% for levels 11 and 12.
CPI, which is at 4.8%, is due to be revised on Wednesday.
The proposed increases were not well received by unions, which want the government to increase salaries by 10% for the highest-paid workers and 12% for lowest-paid ones.
The unions have also demanded the phasing out of levels 1 to 3 as they consider the amounts earned by people on those scales to be "slave wages". The government has rejected this demand too, among a list of others that include a R2,500 hike in the housing allowance and the increase and equalisation of pay progression for all public servants.
Independent Labour Caucus spokesman Basil Manuel said while they awaited another meeting set down for January to discuss the government’s offer, the initial proposal failed to set the right tone for negotiations.
The labour caucus is a grouping of independent public sector unions.
"Nobody honestly expected that demanding a 12% [increase] would be a walk in the park but neither did we expect the employer would simply table CPI and a CPI -1% [increase]…. it is true that inflation has a greater impact the lower your salary is, but when one looks at the levels we are talking about, level 10 would be deputy principals at [schools] and to suggest that they are in the top earners of the country cannot be held to be true," Manuel said.
Manuel’s sentiments were supported by Nicol Mullins, an executive council member of the South African Reward Association, who said on Monday that using CPI as a basis for calculating salary increases "does not make sense".
Nobody honestly expected that demanding a 12% [increase] would be a walk in the park
Mullins argued that because inflation figures varied from one source to another, there was no reason why they should have an effect on salaries.
"It makes much better business sense to use a scientific, evidence-based methodology for calculating salary increases that is based on what a particular role commands in the marketplace," Mullins said. He added that if the employer used CPI to calculate salary increases, it should be applied only to the portion of the salary used to buy goods and services that were inflation-linked.
Manuel said unions looked forward to hearing the government’s rationale for the wage offers, while emphasising that because of the economic challenges in the country, they had not closed the door on talks.
"We haven’t started bargaining because we have to hear the rationale for the response [from the government] and see what informs that. We have not closed the door to anything.
"We are aware that there are issues in the country … the looming downgrades and all these things have an impact," Manuel said.
Labour unions including those that are affiliated to Cosatu, have in the past expressed concern about the government’s commitment to the wage talks after negotiators twice postponed the tabling of the offer.