/ 21 June 2007

Wage talks: ‘It’s still touch and go’

South African government and union negotiators postponed until Friday talks aimed at ending a costly three-week civil servants’ strike to enable labour unions to consult members, officials said.

”We are coming back on Friday. Labour requested more time to get a mandate from their members,” said Lewis Rabkin, spokesperson for the Public Services and Administration ministry.

South African union negotiators, representing hundreds of thousands of public servants on strike since June 1, discussed late on Wednesday whether to accept the government’s revised pay offer after an ultimatum expired.

Union officials said labour negotiators requested a postponement to seek workers’ reponse to the goverment offer.

”This is to give the unions enough time to consult with all their members on proposal that was tabled by the government,” said Patrick Craven, spokesman for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Earlier there were no signs of a breakthrough as the government’s deadline for an agreement by 6pm passed and the largest public service union, which represents teachers, said the offer was still not enough.

Government chief negotiator Kenny Govender denied there was ever any deadline, but said the government had come to the end of the line of negotiations.

”As government we made our position very very clear when we tabled a final written offer; it is very clear in that it indicates the end of the line for government,” Govender said.

However, he was optimistic of a settlement on Friday. ”It is very difficult; it’s still touch and go. It’s very critical. I’m still confident that we’ll find each other. I believe we are very close,” he said.

The government said unions must accept its revised offer or make do with a previous lower offer. The latest package includes a 7,5% wage increase and a higher housing allowance of R500 from R456.

That was still below the unions’ revised demand of a 9% raise in a dispute that has highlighted the divide between the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its labour allies.

The government says a drastic wage increase would crowd out other spending while the central bank fears inflation-beating pay rises could push up prices and interest rates in Africa’s biggest economy.

Disruption of schools

The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) rejected the latest offer.

”If the employer does not improve the offer, we will have further disruption of schools,” said Sadtu deputy general secretary Don Pasquallie.

Sadtu supporters were ”forcefully” removed from a Durban school on Wednesday after the principal was apparently threatened.

Cosatu condemned what it said was the ”shooting and arrest” of Sadtu members by private security staff and police at the school.

Analysts say the strike has become a demonstration of workers’ power ahead of a leadership congress this year that may see the ANC name a successor to Mbeki.

Mbeki steps down as president in 2009, and the ANC may steer away from his market-friendly policies, which Cosatu and other critics say have failed to dent economic disparities that linger from the apartheid era.

The strike has caused chaos in schools and public offices and some South Africans say family members have died as a result of problems in hospitals.

The government initially proposed a 6% rise which it later upped to 7,5%. The unions cut their opening demand for a 12% rise to 9%.

Gertrude Mmabatho, a striking messenger at the department of social development, said she had been forced to sell oranges to make a living since the action began. But she remains defiant.

”We can’t struggle like this for a long time and not get anything out of it,” she said. – Reuters, Sapa