Public sector wage talks teeter on a knife edge

The department of public service and administration has launched a last-ditch effort to save the public sector wage talks, with labour federation Cosatu warning that it will not hesitate to go on strike.

Cosatu has demanded a salary increase for government employees that is linked to the consumer price index, projected by October’s medium-term budget policy statement to be 5.5%, plus 3% as a result of this month’s value-added tax increase.

But the department has refused to budge. Instead, it has stuck to its offer of CPI plus 1% while trying to alter the initial offer, which has heightened tensions.

“We are ready to strike and the government knows that, but we want to strike at the right time and with the correct legal basis,” Cosatu’s chief wage negotiator, Mike Shingange, told the Mail & Guardian.

This week, government and union representatives met facilitators to negotiate before an official offer could be made. This followed outrage by unions over the proposed changes. The public service department had attempted to “start negotiations from scratch” and was “defeated”, Shingange said.

“We don’t want to create the impression that we are dealing with two governments and we are more aggressive, because they created the impression that they want to start afresh. They may have tried, but they have failed. We successfully pushed them back,” he added.

The unions said they had allowed the facilitation as a gesture of good faith following the appointment of new Public Service and Administration Minister Ayanda Dlodlo.

The offer presented during former minister Faith Muthambi’s tenure was “watered down” by the department, one of the negotiators told the M&G on condition of anonymity.

The new proposals include changes to civil servants’ salary packages and the phasing in of a new housing allowance for husbands and wives employed by the state, instead of the immediate implementation that labour demanded.

The public sector wage deal expired on March 31 and the new agreement will be backdated. But unions this week said they had been blindsided. The Public Servants Association (PSA) has threatened to declare a dispute and the Independent Labour Caucus (ILC) has said it would follow Cosatu’s lead.

“We agreed to facilitation and parties are exchanging positions, but they aren’t very positive from our point of view,” PSA assistant general manager Leon Gilbert said.

The PSA said the talks are urgent because government workers are already paying the increased VAT rate without a salary increase to compensate for this.

“The longer it takes, the more worrisome it becomes. We are concerned by the slow pace but some of the positions being put forward are also very worrisome,” Gilbert said.

But Cosatu’s Shingange said there was currently no legal basis to reject the offer, and dismissed the threats by the PSA and the ILC.

“The thing is, we don’t have a history of them [the PSA and the ILC] going on strike for as long as it takes. They usually go for one day and come back, and it’s our members who take that long road,” Shingange said.

Ultimately, he said, it would be Cosatu that takes to the streets against the government and President Cyril Ramaphosa, whom the federation lobbied for ahead of the ANC’s elective conference last year.

Department spokesperson Mava Scott chose to reserve comment until a wage deal had been secured.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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