A season of discontent looms

Posted on January 19, 2021


(First published on the Fin24 website)

With justification, government ministers continue to praise nurses and other “frontline workers” fighting the battle against Covid-19.  Yet, at the same time, they refuse to pay a wage rise agreed three years ago with unions representing these same workers and others in the health, education and other sectors.

In this they are supported by ratings agencies, the business establishment and their academic and media acolytes — and resisted fiercely by a united union movement.  This week, for example, the North West University (NWU) Business School called for the “slashing” of public servant salaries.  This salary bill, it claimed, is “one of the biggest threats to South Africa’s finances”.

But the unions, from all federations, reaffirmed their determination to take the pay rise matter to the Constitutional Court.  At the same time, all were gearing up for a major strike in what promises to be a season labour discontent.

As anyone following this matter will be aware, the government, after paying for two years without a murmur, reneged on the agreed pay rise for the third year.  The unions baulked. Strikes were threatened, talks dragged on with agreements apparently being reached and then reversed.  

Finally the unions took the matter to the labour court.  But they lost their case after what is widely regarded as a controversial and “pro boss” decision on technicalities.

So far as the unions are concerned, the internal machinations of employers, be they in the private sector or government, are of no direct concern to workers and their organisations.  Government is seen as comparable to a business with various subsidiaries, one of them being the public sector ministry.  

That the subsidiary fails — after two years — to find or arrange sufficient funds from the holding company (the Treasury of the government) to honour its contractual obligations should not, in the union view, alter the contract struck between the unions and the public sector ministry.  And, as all the unions point out, it was the ministry and government that insisted, against union objections, on a three year agreement.

A majority of unions finally agreed, although a substantial minority registered disapproval.  “But we didn’t agree because of [being members of] the Alliance,” says Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the Cosatu-affiliated SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu).

He adds that most unions felt that they would lose more from a strike than they might gain and could end the year with annual incomes “less than inflation”.  Things were now different with the government refusing to “honour its obligations”  The 1.2 million workers in the public sector were ready to take action.

“Throughout, the workers operated in good faith,” says Leon Gilbert, acting general manager of the near quarter million strong PSA (Pubic Servants Association).  He compares what government has done with buying a car over a three year period, paying for two years and then refusing to pay any more while maintaining ownership of the car.  

But what has also raised the temperature within the unions are comments such as that by the  NWU, that do not distinguish between the public service and the public sector as a whole.  The popular and widely promoted image is of a public sector, including all workers, that is grossly overstaffed and over paid.

However, the situation is much more complicated and workers feel they are being blamed for the mismanagement, nepotism, cadre deployment and looting carried out at management level.  They also point out that executives, some of whom are now facing questions before the Zondo commission about their actions, decisions and incomes were appointed by ministers representing the government.

“For example, nurses, like teachers, are public servants who happen to be part of the wider pubic sector that includes state-owned enterprises such as Eskom and PRASA,” notes Basil Manuel executive director of the National and Professional Teachers’ Organisation (Naptosa).  And, adds Manuel, there is a shortage of these workers who are not, by any standards, over paid.

Simon Hlungwani, president of the Democratic Nurses Organisation (Denosa) notes that there are also thousands of highly skilled South African nurses now working abroad while there is a desperate shortage on the home front. “We haven’t got exact figures, but the position is dire,” he says.

Workers in the education or health services are also aware that wages in their sectors do not match the multi-million rand payments to executives in the public sector’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs).  And there are no allegations that the looting within the SOEs was carried out by rank and file workers.

It is pointed out that even the most qualified and long serving school principal does not make it to a six-figure annual salary.  But Eskom chief executive Phakamani Hadebe, who resigned last year, was paid R8.6 million a year.  However, judging from the three months covered in the Eskom 2019/20 annual report, his successor, Andre de Ruyter, has apparently settled for a basic pay packet of some R6.5 million, a little more than double President Cyril Ramaphosa’s basic pay.

But it is commonly agreed that the staffing at both Eskom and the cabinet is “bloated”.  With 63 ministers and deputy ministers, South Africa has probably the largest state executive in the world.  And deeply debt ridden Eskom is estimated to have some 20,000 “surplus staff” headed by a 13-strong executive that took home, between them, R55.87 million last year.

Given the strength of feeling and the unity of the unions, it would probably be best if the government lost the Concourt battle, paid the  money owing, and opened the already delayed 2021 wage talks.  A victory, coupled with continued non-payment, seems likely to trigger a large, long and bitter strike.

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