My Inside Labour column last week, comparing the pay and conditions of nurses and teachers to those of cabinet ministers and MPs seems to have touched a raw nerve. And mainly among both national and local government employees that I did not mention.
One of the first questions posed was: would you risk your life on a regular basis, often working unsociable hours, for as little as R8 000 a month? Or, after years of training and hard work, do the same dangerous job for an average of R15 000?
The question came in the wake of the news that two fire fighters, Dan Zwane and Michael Letsosa, had died battling a blaze in a smoke-filled basement in Johannesburg last Sunday. A union representative pointed out that, after one year of intensive training, physically fit men and women enter the service on a pay scale equal to roughly R8 000 a month. Even although still regarded as being “in training”, they are expected to carry out the same duties as experienced men and women for whom the average pay is R15 000.
In drawn out negotiations at the local government bargaining council, fire fighters and other municipal employees have been offered a 5.4% pay rise and a three-year deal that has been rejected by the unions. A third round of talks starts on Tuesday.
In the meantime, national government employees, including paramedics, have settled for an effective 7% pay increase in a three year deal that will be linked to CPI plus 1% in the second and third years. However, the issue of housing allowances remains in contention.
The agreement is also unlikely to placate a number of lower paid workers, among them paramedics. They complain not only about low wages, but also about a lack of equipment and vehicles. Reports reaching the unions are that in some areas only a third of the required ambulances are available.
A common complaint is also staff sortages. One paramedic station manager reported that poor conditions and pay of barely R7 000 a month is causing the exodus of trained personnel.
Fire fighters have similar complaints about staff shortages and, in some areas, a lack of adequate equipment and appliances. “One of the problems is that many of the older fire fighters are nearing retirement and others are leaving the service,” a fire services negotiator with the SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) said. As a result, it was necessary for members in areas such as the Western Cape, regularly to work 48 hours of overtime every month.
Nurses are in a similar position with the Democratic Nurses Organisation (Denosa) admitting that many of their members often work double shifts, both in order to earn more money, but also because of the shortage of staff. In both cases such overtime labour often plays havoc with the health and family lives of the workers.
The majority of such workers also do not own a home and earn too much to qualify for state assistance and too little for a bond. But their housing allowance is now R1 200 a month. And such allowances are not available to most low paid workers outside the pubic service; many live in backyards or informal settlements.
As the labour movement readily concedes, this is a major problem, and one felt even more acutely in poorer communities than the current electricity crisis. But perhaps some help is at hand.
Professor David Dewar of the University of Cape Town, a built environment specialist and architect Paul Andrew, for example, have produced a democratic, “bottom-up”, housing policy. And, on the energy front, Sustainable Energy Africa has produced a detailed report on energy in South African cities.
Both groups are keen that trade unionists and a wider audience should consider these documents. So I am prepared to forward — in pdf — either or both of them to you. Send your requests to: firstname.lastname@example.org