Protesters attend a demonstration organised by The Congress of South African Trade Unions in Johannesburg, in this September 27 2017 file photo. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Protesters attend a demonstration organised by The Congress of South African Trade Unions in Johannesburg, in this September 27 2017 file photo. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

South African trade unions are seething with anger following Wednesday’s budget speech, with a number of them threatening to go on strike in response to  the government’s austerity plans.

Public service unions have decried high vacancy rates, saying finance minister Tito Mboweni’s announcement that the government plan to offer voluntary severance packages to thousands of workers flies in the face of existing collective bargaining agreements.

In an effort to curb spending on the wage bill Mboweni said national and provincial compensation budgets would be reduced by R27bn over the next three years, while older public servants would be “allowed” to take early retirement, saving an estimated R4.8bn in 2019/20, R7.5bn in 2020/21 and R8bn in 2021/22.

The public wage bill  now stands at 35% of the total budget and the plan is to shed 30,000 employees through natural attrition.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) said it would embark on a mass mobilisation campaign, calling for both Cosatu and the SA Federation of Trade Unions to stage a “total shutdown” over the decision to unbundle Eskom.

Mboweni emphasised the government’s plan to unbundle Eskom on Wednesday, saying the state would invest R69bn in the struggling, over-indebted power utility over the next three years.

The threats also come as politicians face increased pressure from the public to fix state finances ahead of the national elections in May.

Cosatu affiliates will meet next week to discuss the union federation’s response to the  government plans, with some of its members pushing for a review of its 2018 decision to support the ANC during the elections.

The country’s biggest public sector union, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), said it would oppose any “undemocratic, authoritarian practices” seeking to undermine and unilaterally alter conditions of employment for its members.

It referred to a deal made at the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council that resolved to appoint an inter-ministerial panel meant to review the composition of the public service, including the consideration of voluntary severance packages.

“We view the utterance by the minister as an attempt to pre-empt the outcomes of this panel which is an act of provocation,” said Nehawu general secretary Zola Sapheta.

The Public Servants Association (PSA) described the interventions for the public sector as “controversial”.

“From these statements, the minister of finance and the minister of public service have clearly declared war on public servants. Whilst plans for early retirements were previously denied publicly, it is clear that the employer cannot be trusted as it was stated that the details of the early retirement framework already be outlined during the course of the week,” said PSA general manager, Ivan Fredericks.

On Thursday, Numsa drew a line in the sand over Eskom. The militant union told reporters that it was calling for a “total national shutdown” to defend Eskom.

The union, Cosatu and its affiliates view the move to unbundle Eskom as an attempt to privatise the power utility.

“The Numsa  national executive committee has decided to embark on a rolling mass action through a declaration of section 77 in defence of Eskom. We shall be calling for unity of all workers across various sectors of the economy. Numsa, National Union of Mineworkers, Saftu and Cosatu must all take to the streets,” said general secretary Irvin Jim.

mahlakoanat@businesslive.co.za