Nehawu protest. Picture: SUPPLIED
Nehawu protest. Picture: SUPPLIED

Regarding the protracted negotiations over public-sector wages and working conditions, (Public sector wage bill out of control, warns Ayanda Dlodlo, May 23), Theto Mahlakoana’s point stands that there is a real danger that the high wage bill crowds out expenditure on services to the public. In SA, salaries for public servants make up 35% of expenditure, whereas in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, it averaged 26% from 2000-08.

Public servants earn more than their private-sector counterparts. In 2014, the average real monthly wage of a public-sector employee was R11,668 compared to R7,822 for a private-sector worker — 32% more. Entry-level wages have more than doubled in real terms since 1998, when the Public Sector Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC) was established.

One does not want to begrudge civil servants good wages, especially in view of the billions of rand raked off at the top through corruption and state capture.

But there are two key issues that need to be addressed. The first is that there has been no similar increase in the quality of services they provide. If anything, there has been a decline in services and fiscal discipline, most noticeably in major state-owned enterprises (SOEs). State-run hospitals and schools in several provinces are seriously dysfunctional. There is thus an urgent and serious need to build performance requirements into the collective bargaining process as well.

The second key issue is that such collective bargaining process in the public sector need to be restructured along sectoral lines. It does not make sense that one over-arching bargaining council, the PSCBC, negotiates, in one forum, the wages of immensely diverse occupations, such as teachers, nurses, policemen and policewomen, and many more.

The structures already exist for sector-based bargaining. We already have the Education Labour Relations Council that can negotiate teachers’ salaries; the Public Health and Social Development Sectoral Bargaining Council that can take care of nurses and social workers’ salaries; and the Safety and Security Sectoral Bargaining Council that can determine the police force and prison warders’ earnings. In addition, the PSCBC has the power to create more sectoral bargaining councils.

There are many advantages to bargaining wages and working conditions sectorally in the public sector. It allows more nuanced agreements that take the circumstances of each sector’s employees and working conditions into consideration; it enables differentiated wage settlements so that public servants who are underpaid, such as police and teachers, can obtain greater increases, while bloated salaries elsewhere can be frozen.

Negotiations will become less protracted as they will be less complicated and not require consensus across a vast array of public-sector unions. Lastly, sectoral strikes will be far less damaging to the economy than when all 1.3-million civil servants represented by the PSCBC go on strike.

Johann Maree
Emeritus Professor of Sociology: University of Cape Town