Hypocrisy and strike facts to think about

Posted on October 31, 2022


(First published on Fin24 28.10.2022 and in City Press 30.10.2022)

The decision this week by acting public sector minister Thulas Nxesi to “pencil in” a unilateral payment of a 3% pay rise for the public sector was, as many workers see it, another display of arrogance, insensitivity and hypocrisy by the government. It had the effect of holding a gun to the head of the unions while pledging that talks about a final settlement may continue.

Members of the three teacher unions in the sector agreed to accept the apparent final offer of 3%. only in order to avoid a potentially lengthy strike. “We accepted reluctantly because the teachers felt a strike toward the end of the academic year, would harm students,” said Basil Manuel, executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation.

But the teachers, along with other unionists, are certainly not happy with the pay rise or the way government has conducted negotiations. That they are angry should be perfectly understandable to anyone fully aware of the facts and the context in which this pay row is taking place.

A reminder: in June 2018 the majority of the public sector unions, following negotiations that dragged on for nine months, agreed, at government insistence, to a three-year pay deal. This, government said, was a requirement for long-term planning. As far the unions were concerned, an agreed and legally binding contract was signed by the majority of unions and applied to all. But when the third year dawned, the state reneged and, by means of a legal technicality, refused to pay the agreed, third-year, increase.

Apart from causing a loss of confidence in government from within the labour movement, this action also undermined what is the cornerstone of collective bargaining: honouring negotiated agreements. That the government, for whatever reasons, failed to budget properly, was not the fault of the workers whose pay was effectively frozen.

This year, with the unions tabling a 10% pay demand, the state initially responded again with a pay freeze before offering a 1.5% increase. The offer, coming after officials, parliamentarians and the ministers and deputy. ministers were awarded 3% pay rises in April, backdated for two years, further raised the temperature. But when the government increased its offer to 3%, most unions responded by lowering their demand to an official inflation linked 6.5%.

Nxesi, a former general secretary of South African Democratic Teachers’ Union , then threatened to use his powers to unilaterally impose a 3% wage settlement on all the unions. The other Cosatu unions responded by reverting to their 10% demand. Nxesi’s response was to “pencil in” the unilateral pay rise while holding out the prospect of further talks.

In the meantime, the PSA (Public Servants Association), with some 235,000 members, gave notice of strike action. This seems likely now to be backed by the similarly large, Cosatu-affiliated National Education and Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and smaller, also Cosatu and ANC-affiliated unions that broke ranks with the PSA in 2018.

What these workers and their representatives have stressed — and which has not featured largely in reports and analysis of the dispute — is that what is being offered by government is a major wage reduction. The official inflation rate — the increase in the cost of goods and services — is now listed at 7.6%. But, as is generally accepted, this is the minimum rise in the cost of living across all social classes. For the lower paid and the poor, this cost is significantly higher.

According to StatsSA, the annual inflation rate for “non-durable goods” such as food, non-alcoholic drinks, electricity and medicine has risen over the year to 14.4%. Breads and cereals also rose in price by an average of 19.3% while oils and fats inched close to 30%.

Courtesy of the ongoing legacy of apartheid, transport remains a major cost for lower paid workers. And transport costs have, according to official statistics, increased from between 21.2% and 29%. What all these figures mean is that most workers , across almost all sectors, probably need a 10% or more increase in pay just to maintain their existing standard of living.

The authoritative Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity group that tracks the cost of a basic basket of nutritional food for a family has revealed, for example, that the annual increase — September to September — was R107.39, or 13.9% higher. With unemployment realistically moving toward half the available workforce, many individuals in work are also having to support between six and ten dependents.

And while South Africa has a grossly bloated and highly paid government structure, with 63 ministers and deputy ministers, there is a worrying shortage of nurses, doctors, teachers and other essential workers who are not highly paid. In fact, close to half of the roughly 1.3 million individuals on the public sector payroll, earn less than R40,000 a month and 317,000 are paid less than R25,000 a month in a 16-level pay scale that starts at R8,630 a month. All parliamentarians are all on a R1 million-plus pay levels, let alone the value of considerable perks.

There are also 712 individuals on the government payroll who have incomes above R1.5 million a year or R125,000 a month and another 528 in the R1 million-plus category, putting them on a similar pay level to all parliamentarians A 3% pay rise for someone paid at this level would mean an annual increase greater than R30,000 or more than R8,000 more than the average monthly base salary of a registered nurse. Even a public sector worker earning R40,000 a month would gain just R1,200 or R100 extra monthly, a figure less than the annual increase in a basket of basic foodstuff.

But public sector workers are, admittedly, the fortunate few sellers of labour who have jobs that do pay above what the unions have described as a poverty level of less than R5,000 a month. But there are many others such as the Transnet workers whose strike ended last week who are in the same and, often, much worse positions with much less job security and even lower pay.

For them — as is invariably the case — a strike is the last resort because it means additional hardship in the hope not only of gaining something better in the future, but of at least maintaining the present level of survival. These are facts that should be borne in mind whenever strikes occur or are threatened.

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