/ 10 August 2010

Public servants push for more pay

Public Servants Push For More Pay

Public-sector unions representing more than a million workers staged a one-day strike on Tuesday, threatening an extended labour stoppage this week that could deal a blow to Africa’s largest economy.

Tuesday’s action increases pressure on President Jacob Zuma’s government to reach a deal by a Thursday deadline set by the unions to prevent a repeat of a prolonged public-sector strike three years ago that dented the economy and damaged support for Zuma’s predecessor.

Marches were held in Cape Town and Pretoria as part of a “total shut-down of the public service”, according to the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Everything from schools to public offices were affected, although essential services such as police and hospitals were running on reduced staffing.

The Department of Home Affairs said immigration services at ports and airports had not been affected and measures had been taken at major airports to ensure minimal disruption.

Talks to resume
Unions and government negotiators planned talks later in the day, after the protest marches were over, union officials said.

“In a strike of this magnitude it is difficult to make sufficient contingency plans to ensure business runs as usual, but we have employed contract workers to make sure government departments will not be closed,” said Dumisani Nkwamba, a spokesperson for the Public Service Ministry.

Unions want an 8,6% pay hike, twice the current rate of inflation, and a R1 000 monthly housing allowance.

“Failure to meet these demands by August 12 2010 will result in indefinite labour action by all unions until the demands are met,” Cosatu-affiliated unions said in a statement.

The government is offering 7% and R630 for housing, although analysts believe it is likely to raise its offer rather than risk a walk-out that would damage the economy.

“I think in two weeks or so it will be finished. If the strike keeps going on past September, then they are dangerous,” said Gary van Staden, a political analyst at independent economists NKC.

Analysts expect the African National Congress, which has a longstanding alliance with organised labour, to give in to the unions’ demands. But such a deal will make it hard to bring the deficit down from 6,7% of GDP without spending cutbacks elsewhere.

The government, which budgeted for wage increases based on a 5,2% inflation projection, has not said how much more it would spend under its offer or the deal sought by the unions.

In an indication of how costly the deal could be, just the R1 000 monthly housing allowance sought by the unions could account for more than 1% of the state budget.

The government said its offer package would amount to an average 9% increase for 1,3-million unionised public servants.

A mid-grade public-sector employee makes on average R8 800 a month in salary and benefits, above the national average wage of R6 383, according to government figures.

The central bank has also expressed concern about elevated pay increases stoking inflation in the wider economy, putting upward pressure on interest rates. — Reuters