The government’s review of the 2018 public sector wage agreement, announced late last month, may just turn out to be a damp squib.

For all the government’s posturing and claims to be talking to labour about reviewing the deal, the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC) — the bargaining council in which the agreement was struck — says the government cannot simply pull out of the deal.

Should it do so and fail to give effect to the wage increase it agreed to in the 2018 wage talks, the government risks being hauled to court by unions in litigation that could span a number of years. Such a move could also place the government in a precarious position politically, given the breach of trust it would involve.

This is according to PSCBC general secretary Frikkie de Bruin, speaking to the FM about the review tabled in the council on February 25.

"The bottom line is the government cannot withdraw from a binding agreement if that agreement has an expiry date and a deadline for its implementation; it cannot withdraw in law," De Bruin says.

He describes the situation as a marriage in which one party was caught cheating and the PSCBC is the go-between trying to save the rocky union.

While it is not "competent" in law for the government to withdraw from the deal, it may simply decide not to comply, and not implement the inflation plus 1% increase on April 1, the date agreed to by parties in 2018.

This is one scenario De Bruin sketches. If this happens, unions will most likely declare a dispute, and the PSCBC would have to step in to enforce the agreement. If the government were to then ignore an enforcement order, the stage would be set for the unions to go to court.

De Bruin confirms to the FM that there are no formal talks about the review under way between the government and the unions in the council. He says both sides are "upset" and have their own rules of engagement. The unions, for example, refuse to entertain talk about a review, while the government wants labour to agree to the possibility of a review before entertaining any further talks.

This comes just weeks before the last leg of the wage deal is expected to be implemented. With three weeks to go, and unions standing firm, government’s much-publicised attempt to reduce the public wage bill appears to be dead in the water.

"It’s a power play on both sides," according to De Bruin.

How the government proceeds will set the tone for the next round of wage talks, set to unfold later this year. Should it fail to implement the increase on April 1, it would mark a severe breach of trust, with far-reaching implications for collective bargaining, De Bruin adds.

"It could flaw the whole collective bargaining process … we are absolutely in uncharted territory for the public sector," he says, adding that it could also spell the end of multiyear agreements.

This would have a negative effect on the government’s ability to plan and budget over the medium term.

Ironically, the Public Servants Association, which represents about 250,000 workers, had requested that the 2018 deal be reopened and reviewed shortly after it was signed, as it was unhappy with the deal. The government flat-out refused at the time, saying there was "no way" the deal could be reviewed.

The National Education Health & Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) this week confirmed that it has held no formal talks with the government and that, come April 1, it expects the increase to be implemented. Spokesperson Khaya Xaba says the union will "go to war" if this doesn’t happen.

The SA Democratic Teachers Union held a key leadership meeting over the weekend, in which its top brass rejected the government’s proposed review.

"The [national executive committee] clearly stated that it was not prepared to compromise on this but was prepared to engage the employer on the next round of negotiations and other alternatives aimed at saving jobs in the public service," says general secretary Mugwena Maluleke.

"The union will embark on report-back meetings to members to allay fears about their jobs and wages. The union will also begin the process of consultations for the next round of negotiations," he says.

Nehawu is holding a bargaining forum later this month, and a bargaining conference thereafter, also to prepare for the next round of wage talks, which open in August.

The next meeting before the PSCBC will take place in April.

The government’s review proposal appears to be going nowhere, unless it reneges on the 2018 deal. But this would be tantamount to a declaration of war — one that would place collective bargaining, and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration, in an untenable political position.

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