The government is insensitive to the needs of the poor and does not understand the economic plight faced by many state employees.
This is the sentiment of many public sector workers as the state and unions wrangle through wage negotiations, and while unions haven’t explicitly threatened to strike, their members are already preparing themselves for industrial action.
“We work in the places people don’t want to go. We keep our cities clean and people ignore us like animals. The government must understand we aren’t asking for luxuries – we are asking for the bare necessities,” Phumlile Shange, a Johannesburg Pikitup worker told the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday.
The government suspended talks with unions last week, claiming they had no more money to put on the table.
“The negotiations are not finished at this stage, but the government has tabled its final settlement offer,” said Dumisani Nkwamba, spokesperson for the public service and administration department.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), representing 14 state unions in the negotiations, is demanding an 8% annual raise and a housing allowance of R1 500, while government offering 6.5% and R900 in return.
Officially, government is pleading poverty as they claim only a 5% increase for public servants was provided for in the February budget, and any increase to that offer will affect state spending elsewhere.
Unions have not ruled out strike action if their wage demands are not met, but analysts are warning the South African economy would not be able to withstand any protracted strike action.
But for Shange and other public sector employees, talks of tough economic times ahead are mere lip-service, as long working hours and testing working conditions weigh on their minds.
She claims an average monthly salary of R4 000 a month for municipal workers will never make ends meet.
“If we must strike, then it must be like that. We can’t carry on like this, we must fight for what we deserve,” Shange said.
This is echoed by Sam Mahlaule, a health administrator at Charlotte Maxeke hospital.
“What we are asking for is not a lot, we deserve some gratitude for the work we do,” he said.
Mahlaule said that while workers are cognisant of the fact that a strike could cause hardship for the patients he serves on a daily basis, it is a risk worth taking as “government only listens then”.
“Yes, people will suffer but we also suffer because of these wages. The money we earn doesn’t even cover our expenses,” he added.
Mahlaule said the salaries base level salaries of health sector employees, ranging from R5–000 to R12 000 a month are simply not sustainable.
“We need more money. Prices go up a lot and our salaries only a little. We can’t qualify for a bond on an RDP house and we battle to even buy food come month end,” added Mahlaule.
But Mahlaule’s pain is not only felt by middle- to low-income earners in the public service.
Dr Mark Sonderup, acting chairperson of the South African Medical Association – which represents some of the state’s highest paid doctors, said the wages don’t reflect the amount of work put in by state health professionals and should change.
“It’s shocking how we are made to work long hours in horrifying conditions. A wage increase won’t solve our problems but it will make things a little easier,” he said.
This feeling of apparent abandonment by the state is not only felt by those in the medical and municipal sectors.
A lieutenant colonel in the South African Police Service from Meadowlands in Soweto, who requested anonymity as he is barred from talking to the media in a professional capacity, told the M&G it is becoming increasingly difficult to put his uniform on in the morning.
“It’s a horrible feeling to put your life on the line and not be rewarded. We are supposed to protect people, but they don’t care if we live or die,” he said.