Editorial: Collective bargaining headache

Whenever the conversation of South Africa’s bloated public sector workforce is raised, a few images come to mind, depending on which side of the debate one sits. It’s either an image of long lines outside of Home Affairs offices staffed by people with “jobs for life” who are oblivious to the frustrations of those on the other end of the window.  

The thought that those same public servants are due above-inflation salary increases in an environment where the country has lost more than a half a million jobs and many have taken salary cuts as a result of the pandemic must sound absurd. 

How does an underperforming public sector that is struggling to meet the most basic service delivery standards manage to garner such increases while the state’s coffers remain under pressure as a result of an economy that’s been struggling for over a decade?

In 2018, government and trade unions concluded a collective agreement that set out salary increases over the next three years. Last year, the state sought to revise the agreement on the basis that the costs were unaffordable, calling for a wage freeze. The wage bill accounts for 35% of government spending. 

A freeze on public sector wages is about more than how much workers are paid. As labour has pointed out again and again, going back on an existing wage agreement is an attack on the principle of collective bargaining — which lies at the heart of our industrial relations system.

Reneging on the deal would call into question collective bargaining, and one can only imagine what precedent it would set for the less scrupulous mining and manufacturing bosses. But the hard reality is that the fiscus is in a difficult spot, never mind the surprise windfall from mining activities over the past year. 

Something’s gotta give.

But how did we get here? 

If you are on the other side of the spectrum and work in the public sector, you’d know that those long lines at administrative centres are a result of a host of vacancies the state can no longer afford to fill.

In the short-lived but good old days, when South Africa had a budget surplus at the end of 2008, the state employed just short of 200 000 people in the aftermath of the global recession that had seen a million people lose their jobs. The hires weren’t nearly enough to fill the vacancies that have fed into our growing service delivery problems, and the rate at which those salaries grew over the past decade closed any space for additional and necessary hires in important sectors such as healthcare and education. 

So what we have now is a bloated salary bill, but not enough workers to ensure the state is fully capacitated to render services critical to rebuilding this economy. That’s the much bigger headache — perhaps second only to the spectre of an end to collective wage bargaining.

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