On Monday, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) Nehawu called the revision of government’s initial tabled offer of 5.8% to 5% “the worst form of arrogance and disdain” the employer has shown to the workers in 20 years and said the refusal by government to negotiate fairly would only serve to poison the relations between labour and government.
In an interview with the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday, Nehawu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said the unions were “very stunned and troubled” when the employer reversed its offer claiming that 5% was a projected average CPI for the 2015/16. “We are not keen on strikes but we are being provoked,” he said. “They [the ANC] went to the IMF [International Monetary Fund] to talk about the excessive wage bill but they never talked to us.”
“Can the ANC afford to be deadlocked in wage negotiations before the local government elections in 2016,” said Pamla.
“It is up to them whether they want to satisfy the IMF or the people who have been behind the ANC,” he said.
Nehawu is the biggest public sector union in Cosatu with 277 313 members followed by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union with a membership of 253 039. Should all of Cosatu’s public sector unions declare a dispute with the government, about 1.4-million public servants could go on strike.
The M&G reported on Friday that the department of public service and administration denied negotiating in bad faith. The department’s spokesperson Brent Simons said the government could only offer workers what it can afford. This was based on Nhlanhla Nene, the minister of finance’s budget speech in February, when he committed the state to a fiscal consolidation strategy.
The plan will see the government freeze the public service head count and curb personnel cost increases to an annual average of 6.6% ensuring that salary increases are linked to inflation. The current government wage bill is more than R350-billion a year.
Last year September, the public sector unions tabled a list of demands, including a 15% salary increase across the board, a R3 000 housing allowance, the abolishment of the lowest-paid levels one and two, and the introduction of six months’ maternity leave and two weeks’ paternity leave.
The problem began on Monday during the public service co-ordinating bargaining council pre-negotiations when it was agreed that the base from which the negotiations will start would be at 5.8%. This was based on the year-on-year consumer price index of the 2013/2014 financial year.
“Despite that understanding the employer tabled their opening bid at 5% increase, which was against the spirit of the pre-negotiations meeting. Labour rejected that offer on the basis that the employer was reneging on the undertaking of the pre-negotiations process,” said Pamla.
No option ‘but to strike’
Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini told the M&G the federation will have no option but to strike if the government continues to negotiate “in bad faith” and called the government’s attempt to drop their offer to 5% “an act of treasury mischief”.
“This thing of changing the offer because the CPI [consumer price index] was adjusted down never happened before,” Dlamini said. In a radio interview on Tuesday Dlamini said workers will have to deal with an increase of 1% in income tax, an increase of 1% in the fuel levy and an electricity hike of 25%. “And we have reduced our [salary] demand from 15% to 10% and employers should be willing to negotiate with that,” said Dlamini.
Pamla said the union’s revision of salary from 15% to 10% was also accompanied by moving the housing allowance from R3 000 to R1 500for all qualifying workers from level 1-10 but government still refused to negotiate fairly with workers and insisted on a 5% salary increase.
“The salary bases of public servant are laughable. Some nurses and police officers still take home only R8 000.
“These people don’t qualify for mortgage and they don’t qualify for RDP houses because they are state employees and they don’t have medical aid. On the ground, government has done nothing to understand the state of employees,” said Pamla.
He said it was not the workers’ fault the government’s neo-liberal policies have led to stagnant growth and high unemployment.
“We have always condemned the government with their neo-liberal policies and said they were not good. But now they want to blame us, the workers when things don’t work. They are starting to blame us for the issues of leadership. We said nationalize the reserve bank, that was not done,” said Pamla.
He added that in 2013 president Jacob Zuma promised that an independent commission would explore the working conditions of public servants, something Zuma also included in his 2013 state of the nation address.
“But he has not delivered and now it is 2015. What do you expect workers to do,” said Pamla.
“Our negotiators will go back to the PSCBC tomorrow, 25 March 2015, with the intention of continuing the negotiations and finding an amicable solution.
“We don’t want a strike but having said that you lose the right you don’t defend,” said Pamla.