Bus operators can only afford to pay their staff wages for the next two weeks because of the government’s failure to pay their subsidies, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) said on Wednesday.
”That is how dire the situation is,” Satawu policy research officer Jane Barrett said at a press conference in Johannesburg.
The government appeared to have no appreciation of the fact that it was playing with the lives of communities, of workers and their dependants, added Satawu secretary general Randall Howard.
”It will be a social crisis if this industry collapses … If the money is not paid as a matter of urgency, and if the matter is not resolved politically, then we are likely to have chaos in this country,” he warned.
Satawu is throwing its weight behind an urgent application by the South African Bus Operators Association in the Pretoria High Court on Thursday to try and force the government to pay the R1,2-billion it owes them.
It was understood that the government intended opposing the application, said Howard. Should the court bid fail, Satawu would call a national day of action, he cautioned.
It had the full support of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and was hoping the other tripartite alliance partners — the African National Congress and South African Communist Party — would also get involved.
Golden Arrow Bus Services went to the Cape High Court on Wednesday after the transport department failed to honour an out of court settlement reached a week ago to pay it R92-million in subsidies.
The outcome of the hearing was not known by mid-afternoon on Wednesday.
Already, wage negotiations in the sector have had to be put on hold because of the non-payment of subsidies.
They were scheduled to start again on February 16, subject to the resolution of the crisis, said Howard.
Barrett emphasised that the bus operators were not asking for a bailout, but were contractually entitled to the subsidies.
Operators had entered into fixed or interim contracts with the government, with subsidies determined by formulae which could include the number of kilometres driven, adjustments for fuel and labour costs, and growth in the number of passengers.
Bus companies operated on a 5% to 10% profit margin, relying on the subsidies for 40% to 60% of their revenue, with the rest covered by fares, she said.
The department is reportedly short of money it needs to pay them because National Treasury has refused to meet its original budget request. It has not paid the subsidies since November.
Barrett said the need for subsidies in the public transport sector was recognised worldwide as a way of providing an efficient, attractive and affordable service, she said.
In South Africa, fares would have to be more than doubled to cover the shortfall if subsidies were not paid.
This would make bus transport ”impossibly unaffordable”, especially to the third of South African households already spending more than 10% of their income on public transport, she said. — Sapa