Collective bargaining is a process of negotiating the terms of employment between an employer and workers’ representatives, such as salary increments and working conditions. The process takes place between employers and trade unions.
In terms of the Constitution’s Section 23, trade unions have to engage in collective bargaining, which takes place between an employer and trade unions. However, until recently the Minister of Public Service and Administration, Senzo Mchunu, has seen fit to strip workers of this constitutional right by outsourcing the role of the department to the public to decide on the current wage impasse.
On 26 April 2021 the minister issued a statement asking the public to come up with proposals to assist in resolving the current public service wage negotiations deadlock. This unprecedented stunt is aimed at isolating unions and portraying them as people who are unreasonable and greedy. Mchunu has been obsessed with blaming the outbreak of the coronavirus as one of the major reasons the government has been failing to pay workers decent salaries.
Last year, he tried to blame Covid-19 for the non-implementation of the last leg of the 2018 wage agreement which was due on 1 April 2020. The government indicated on 24 February 2020 at the bargaining council that it had no intention of honouring the agreement. The first person to test positive for the coronavirus was revealed on 5 March 2020 with the country going on nationwide lockdown on 26 March 2020.
What we have learnt from all these processes is that the government cannot be trusted as it tends to negotiate in bad faith and now has a tendency to renege on binding collective agreements. In 2018, when the wage agreement was negotiated, the government insisted on a three-year term while unions demanded a single term. In actual fact, a single term would have allowed government space to evaluate its purse in time for the next round of negotiations. It has since dawned on us that it deliberately pushed for a three-year term so that it could plead poverty in the last year of the agreement.
This is why we don’t believe Mchunu is being genuine about finding common ground on the current negotiations. The trust deficit created by the underhanded tactics deployed by the government are too much to ignore. The inclusion of the public in bargaining matters has proven beyond reasonable doubt that Mchunu, the national treasury and government at large are not interested in maintaining labour peace and improving workers’ salaries and their working conditions.
The Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council was established to promote sound labour relations through collective bargaining and dispute management. This new modus operandi by Mchunu means that labour matters will no longer be negotiated at the council, they will be outsourced to the public to “decide”.
The minister needs to be reminded that workers are also members of the public. He cannot divorce them from general members of the public at will — workers are members of society before they become workers.
It is clear that his intention is to pit workers against other members of the public by creating an impression that workers want funds meant for vaccine procurement to be used to pay salary increments. This is a devious tactic meant to play on the emotions of the public for the government’s own selfish agenda.
Workers are members of the public who happen to work for the government to sustain their lives and those of their families, and they deserve to be remunerated for a living like all other workers.
The minister cannot delegate his responsibilities to the public and still get to keep his title and salary. If he feels that he has run out of ideas and can no longer execute his duties then he must do the honourable thing and resign. A more competent minister must be appointed to continue running the department and the current wage negotiations. Taxpayers’ monies cannot continue to pay for salaries for ministers who turn around and outsource their responsibilities.
The silence of President Cyril Ramaphosa on this matter is also too loud to ignore. The president has the responsibility that his cabinet ministers deliver on their portfolios, unless subjecting workers to a life of poverty is their core mandate.
A strong defence must be mounted by all unions, even those outside the public service, as the collapse of collective bargaining affects each and every worker in the country. We have started to see more and more employers reneging on binding collective bargaining agreements, including the South African Revenue Services and the different water boards. More and more employers are insulting workers with very low salary increases, such as the South African Local Government Association (Salga), which has offered workers a mere R233 as an increase.
While Mchunu is busy playing “pass the buck”, workers are struggling financially because of the rise in basic commodities such as fuel, food and medical aid. The non-implementation of the last leg of Resolution 1 of 2018 and the delay in finalising the current round of negotiations have left workers struggling to make ends meet and living from hand to mouth.
Our only option is to mobilise our members and workers for a full-blown strike to force the government to accede to our demands. Judging by the behaviour of Mchunu, a collision course is unavoidable. Unfortunately, it will lead to a pause in service delivery as our strike will render the state ungovernable.