SABC television studios in Auckland Park. Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND
SABC television studios in Auckland Park. Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND

MPs have joined the government and unions in the pushback against proposed job cuts at the SABC.

The broadcaster, which remains the only source of news and commentary for millions of South Africans, announced in June that it wanted  to cut as much as a fifth of its workforce in a bid to reduce its staggering wage bill and stabilise its finances.

Similar to other state-owned entities, the national broadcaster has struggled to turn a profit for several years, often requiring government bailouts to continue operating. It has been saddled with crippling debt of close to R2bn, a large infrastructure maintenance backlog and an unsustainable wage bill.

It spends more than R3bn a year on the salaries of more than 3,000 permanent employees. It received a R3.2bn bailout from the government late in 2019, which it used to pay off most of its debt.

But with advertising revenue falling due to the economic crisis made worse by Covid-19, the broadcaster is forecasting a budget shortfall of at least R1.5bn in the 2020 financial year. The broadcaster now wants the government to review its budget for the year.

Unions and the government, however, are strongly opposed to the planned retrenchment of 600 workers, which comes after management recently approved above-inflation salary increases of 5%-6%.

This week, parliament’s communications committee deliberated on the matter and engaged with unions and deputy communications minister Pinky Kekana. Kekana told MPs that the SABC should suspend the retrenchment process and focus on engaging with workers. She said there was nothing political about the call; it was a necessary intervention by the shareholder to ensure the process was fair.

Kekana said she had engaged with the unions, which said they had not been consulted by SABC management on the proposed job cuts.

In a presentation to the committee on Wednesday the Communications Workers Union said the planned retrenchments were “premature”.

“Without a fully fleshed skills audit, retrenchments are premature and are not responding to the short- and long-term challenges faced by the broadcaster,” the union said in its submission.

“We therefore insist that the process of the skills audit be concluded, and the outcomes will guide us on a proper restructuring thus including reskilling and redeployment to new avenues such as new channels and online streaming.”

The Broadcasting, Electronic, Media & Allied Workers Union (Bemawu) also called for a thorough skills audit. “The SABC is at risk letting the wrong people go, in particular people needed to execute its strategy,” it said, adding that the retrenchment notices were irregular and possibly unlawful.

The portfolio committee concluded that the SABC management issued notices of retrenchment before conducting an open and transparent skills audit or consulting with relevant stakeholders.

In a statement issued on Thursday, committee chair Boyce Maneli said after listening to the labour unions “the committee became more resolute than ever that retrenchments should be put on hold to allow engagements with all stakeholders in a transparent manner”.

He said the committee supports the government’s position that every effort should be made to save jobs in all sectors of the economy and that retrenchments should be a last resort. The committee will invite the SABC to a meeting to discuss the consultation process, said Maneli.

This week, DA MP and communications spokesperson Phumzile van Damme said the “ANC must not be allowed to use the retrenchments at the SABC to score political points and create the impression that it sides with the public broadcaster’s staff”.

She said: “It was part of National Treasury’s conditions that the SABC cut its wage bill before it was given a bailout. In fact, in previous meetings the SABC informed the committee that the deputy minister, Pinky Kekana, had agreed that retrenchments must take place.

“The DA will continue to push for a fair process at the SABC, one that saves as many jobs as possible, as well as ensure that the SABC can break even and never seeks another bailout.”

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