/ 24 August 2010

Unions, govt butt heads over wage offer


Public-service unions on Tuesday accused the government of creative accounting, as the state urged workers to reconsider its wage offer in an attempt to end a disruptive national strike.

More than one million public servants, members of both the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Independent Labour Caucus, relentlessly continued with the strike as it entered its seventh day.

“The situation is unchanged … many schools and hospitals are affected by the strike. No one is more worried about what is happening in our hospitals and schools than the government,” said government spokesperson Themba Maseko on Tuesday morning.

He briefed the media on the government’s wage offer on Monday afternoon, causing an outcry from unions.

Until Monday, the government said it was offering a 7% increase, but Maseko told reporters this was in “real terms” actually 8,5% — a mere tenth of a percent short of what unions wanted. This was because the increase offer was bolstered by a 1,5% pay progression.

However, unions said the pay progression was actually part of an old agreement about performance appraisals signed in 2003.

“This is a point of disagreement with the unions. They do not want this amount included in the calculations,” Maseko said. “From our side, we are highlighting the total cost to the taxpayer and that is that there would be a salary adjustment amounting to 8,5%.”

He urged unions to meet with the government, but when asked if the state would consider revising its offer, Maseko replied: “At this stage our figures indicate that we cannot afford anything beyond what we have offered.”

The Public Service and Administration Department has already signed the wage agreement into effect and has informed unions it will be unilaterally implemented if it is not accepted within 21 days.

Trade unions were making all sorts of accusations against the government on Tuesday.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) said in a statement: “Nehawu is deeply disturbed by the outright lies that the government has told the people of South Africa, that there is an 8,5% wage increase offer that has been presented to the unions.

“There is no offer that was tabled at the PSCBC [Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council], a democratic institution set up for negotiations.”

Nehawu went on to accuse the government of misspending state funds on tickets to the Soccer World Cup, and financing ministers’ “luxury vehicles” and “caviar lifestyles”.

“A government with serious socio-economic challenges will think twice before spending millions of rands buying tickets [for] a month-long soccer tournament and buy[ing] acres of space in the media to peddle lies and mislead the public,” said Nehawu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla.

South African Democratic Teachers’ Union deputy general secretary Nkosana Dolopi said the government was being dishonest.

“That is not a new offer from the government. Its offer is still 7%. The government is just misleading the public,” said Dolopi.

He said the unions would not end their mass action until the government improved its offer.

Dolopi was confident the unions would get results soon.

“We are continuing … it can’t be that they are not a responsible government … when people are dying in hospitals and children are not going to school … what kind of government would allow that?” he asked.

The Young Communist League (YCL) in Gauteng called the government “anti-poor”, the Congress of People Youth Movement said it lacked leadership and the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa) “utterly condemned” its “propaganda”.

The 210 000-strong Public Servants’ Association (PSA) issued a statement last week warning the public that the government was trying to mislead people by claiming to have added pay progression to its offer.

‘Grasping at straws’
“The PSA has noted with extreme concern this distribution of incorrect information by the Ministry for Public Service and Administration,” said spokesperson Manie de Clercq.

He said the pay progression was a “notch increment” for deserving workers.

“Employees who qualify for this increment are therefore entitled to receive it, irrespective of what the annual general increase for public servants will be for 2010,” said De Clercq.

“The ministry is clearly grasping at straws and is seeking to artificially inflate its meagre offer, which has driven its entire workforce to strike action.”

About 1 700 soldiers remained deployed at more than 30 state hospitals countrywide to help out on Tuesday.

Police and government officials said no further strike violence was reported on Tuesday morning, after nearly 70 striking workers were arrested for public violence on Monday.

‘We can never condone the use of violence’
Meanwhile, military veterans on Tuesday offered to help government hospitals struggling to care for patients amid the strike.

The National Military Veterans’ Association, which includes former members of the formal forces as well as the armed liberation struggle against apartheid, urged members with medical training to volunteer their services.

While doctors have not gone on strike, many nurses have defied a court order requiring essential workers to return to the job, while support staff have joined the picket line since August 18.

Newspapers were filled with images of babies and pregnant women turned away from a Johannesburg children’s hospital.

Hundreds of volunteers and about 1 700 soldiers are already working at public hospitals, and the war veterans group’s leader Kebby Maphatsoe said members of his organisation would join them on Wednesday.

“We also need all veterans to go and volunteer their services in all facilities where patients need to be fed and bathed. Hospitals need to be cleaned, equipment and facilities need to be secured,” he told a press conference.

“Much as we sympathise with the workers and their rights to better working conditions and living wages, we can never condone the use of violence and the unjust actions that lead to fatalities due to the strike,” he said. — Sapa, AFP