/ 28 February 2020

Unions slam move to cut wage bill

Striking for their rights: Cosatu members protesting in Johannesburg. The trade union federation has previously threatened to dump its alliance with the ANC if planned cuts to the public-sector wage bill go ahead. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Although trade unions have threatened to “collapse” the public service over Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s announcement of a plan to slash R160-billion from the state’s wage bill, the government appears prepared to push ahead with the move, despite its political implications.

The impasse is likely to end up in strike action — and in the courts — with the country’s major public-sector unions describing the plan as a “declaration of war” on their members.

Both the Public Servants Association of South Africa (PSA) and trade union federation Cosatu have threatened to take to the streets should he press ahead with the salary freeze.

PSA president Lufuno Mulaudzi told the Mail & Guardian that the union believed the move was prompted by the failure of the government’s attempt to convince workers to take voluntary severance packages.

“We can see the intention is to go ahead and cut salaries of public servants. If the government persists on going ahead, we will be left with no choice but to take our members to the streets,” Mulaudzi said. “We are ready to fight. This is a declaration of war against public servants.”

The department of public service and administration, under whom South Africa’s 1.2-million civil servants fall, said on Thursday that it would continue with its application to the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council not to implement this year’s increment, agreed to as part of a three-year package, despite the threats.

Vukani Mbhele, spokesperson for Public Service and Administration minister Senzo Mchunu, who is tasked with overseeing the cuts, said that they were preparing to go back to the chamber for further talks.

“Actually the process [of negotiating with the unions] started on Tuesday with our notification [of the plan not to implement the salary increment] at the chamber. We will go to the chamber, talk to the unions there and implement what is agreed upon,” Mbhele said.

He said that if there were a need for talks with the unions at another forum, “that will have to be dealt with at a political level”.

In his budget on Wednesday, Mboweni announced that the government will cut R37.8-billion from the public-sector wage bill in the next 12 months.

The state wage bill will be slashed by a further R54.9-billion in 2021-22 and by R67.5-billion in 2022-23, partially by freezing public servants’ salaries, as well as by offering severance packages and early retirement in a bid to trim the state’s workers by 30000 jobs.

The call for action against Mboweni is likely to fall on deaf ears, as the proposal to cut 30000 jobs was tabled at a Cabinet lekgotla as far back as October 2018.

The department of public service and administration has since started offering packages in a bid to get ageing — and highly paid — civil servants off its payroll.

President Cyril Ramaphosa also apparently gave his party’s alliance partner, Cosatu, no indication of the plan to slash the public sector wage bill, when he met its central executive committee on the eve of Mboweni’s budget speech.

Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi told a media briefing on Thursday that the president “did not give us the budget vote” when he addressed the central executive committee meeting. Furthermore, Ramaphosa made no mention of a “bloated” civil service or public-sector wage bill.

“The president did not talk about a public-sector wage deal or bloated public services,” she said.

Cosatu secretary general Bheki Ntshalintshali described the proposed salary freeze as “provocative” and an “attack” on its members. “We will not allow workers to be used as a scapegoat for this economic crisis. These cuts will have severe implications for the economy,” he said.

Cosatu has previously threatened to dump its alliance with the ANC if the wage cuts go ahead, which raises a potential danger for the governing party ahead of next year’s local government elections.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), one of Cosatu’s biggest public-sector affiliates, called on Ramaphosa to take action against Mboweni, claiming the finance minister had “gone rogue”.

“Wage agreements reached by parties in the bargaining council remain sacrosanct. Anyone who undermines workers’ gains must also be prepared to face the wrath of our members,” said general secretary Zola Saphetha.

“We remain opposed to the notion that workers must carry the burden of social adjustment, for the economic crisis they have not created. We call on the government to curb corruption and wasteful expenditure to unburden the fiscus,” he said.

Nehawu also criticised the cuts to spending on human settlements, municipal infrastructure, education and public transport, saying they increased the burden on its members.