State employees, members of the Public Servants Association declaring their demands. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
State employees, members of the Public Servants Association declaring their demands. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

SA’s labour unions are preparing for "the mother of all fights" after the government last week reneged on the final leg of its wage agreement with public sector workers.

On April 15, the first group of SA’s public servants — nurses among them — were to receive salary increases based on the 2018 deal struck in the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC). Under that agreement, the government would pay general workers and support staff an increase of the projected consumer price index (CPI) plus 1%. Higher-level public servants were to receive an increase of projected CPI plus 0.5%.

"Sadly, there are no adjustments," Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) general secretary Riefdah Ajam told the FM after the first tranche of salaries was paid.

Fedusa has launched a labour court application to force the government to implement the agreement. However, the matter is likely to be heard only once the court reopens in May.

SA’s biggest public service union, the National Education Health & Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), has taken a harder stance, saying it will begin to mobilise its members "in earnest" for "the mother of all fights".

Though the unions previously said their workers wouldn’t down tools during the lockdown, Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha last week warned the government that the lockdown "will not last forever".

"When it ends, Nehawu and its members and workers in general will emerge militant, strong, energised and inspired to pick up a real fight with the government … to render the state system unworkable."

The lack of an increase is, he said, "an insult to workers and proves that the government does not value their hard work and resilience" while fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

The government’s about-turn on the 2018 agreement comes after finance minister Tito Mboweni, in his February budget speech, announced drastic cuts to the public sector wage bill. However, the government hadn’t brought the unions on board before announcing reductions that would amount to R160bn over three years.

Since then, the parties have held a number of meetings under the auspices of the PSCBC. Public service & administration minister Senzo Mchunu had hoped, for example, to renegotiate the third year of the wage deal to cut R37.8bn from the wage bill in 2020, or 1.5% in real terms.

His revised offer of a 4.4% pay increase for some levels of workers was also roundly rejected by unions.

Last month, Mchunu said the Covid-19 pandemic and downgrading of SA’s credit rating to junk by Moody’s had piled "more anguish on the economy, which is already in recession". Despite this, he said the government was committed to implementing the wage deal.

Now the government has "infuriated" unions by turning its back on the agreement. "Government’s deliberate underhandedness has clearly been exposed after [it] publicly welcomed the agreement at the time, signifying both commitment to and the resource allocation for honouring the multiterm agreement," says Ajam. "Fedusa refuses to allow government to use the Covid-19 pandemic as a convenient scapegoat [to] dishonour a legally binding agreement, and will use all resources to defend, uphold and protect the dignity of its members."

The National Union of Public Service & Allied Workers (Nupsaw) also says it has "no option" but to take the government to court.

"We need an honest government and not a … dishonest lot who simply do not appreciate the rule of law," says Nupsaw general secretary Success Mataitsane. "The Covid-19 [pandemic] has nothing to do with this, as the government made its intentions known to renege [on the] agreement during both the state of the nation address and the budget speech. We are definitely going to court after the lockdown."

Commenting on the matter, Mchunu’s spokesperson Vukani Mbhele says the department will abide by any court process as the "logical thing to do".

From a moral point of view, Mchunu is "absolutely correct" in not implementing the wage increase, says labour analyst Michael Bagraim, as he is trying to save SA from bankruptcy. From a legal standpoint, however, he believes the decision is incorrect.

"As a lawyer, I can tell you right now that the agreement is solid. I don’t think the government will get anywhere with this should it go to court," he says. "But as a citizen, I think it will be wicked to force the state to adhere to the wage agreement [given the economic challenges SA is facing] … The truth is, the government could not afford the increases."

Given the sensitivities surrounding the issue, he believes the matter could go all the way to the Constitutional Court.

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