Embattled SA state buys time

Posted on November 22, 2022


First published on Fin24 and in City Press, South Africa

Today (Tuesday 22/11) provided a good indication of how angry and united public sector workers are at the government’s decision to unilaterally impose a 3% pay rise that all but the teacher unions have rejected.  And workers in the education sector only “very reluctantly” agreed to the deal in order not to disrupt the lives of students at end-of-year exam time by strike action.  Anger and bitterness about the government’ stance and the pay imposition almost certainly  remain.

The imposition of this unilateral decision undermines the principle of collective bargaining and is also contrary to the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).  However, the government has twice in the past taken this arbitrary step, apparently relying on the fact that the majority of pubic sector unions are affiliated to the ANC-aligned Cosatu federation and would, grudgingly, accept such behaviour.

But this time — and today provided a good indication — there was much greater unanimity among the unions, and the PSA — the only union in the country with a substantial strike fund — has indicated that it will join the protests called by Cosatu unions.  However, the largest of the Cosatu unions, the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) initially remained non-committal and apparently argued for protests in the new year, in other words, after the critical ANC elective conference next month.

At a leadership level, governing party politics have always played a part in the decisions of Cosatu unions, especially since so many union leaders have made the transition to leading positions in the party and to ministerial posts in government.  In this case, finance minister Enoch Godongwana (ex National Union of Metalworkers) and public service minister Thulas Nxesi (ex SA Democratic Teachers’ Union) play major roles.

They represent a government that also continues to press to extend the definition of “essential service” to categories of public sector workers.  This is another ground for resentment since workers in “essential services” — in health, fire fighting etc — are prohibited from withholding their labour: all-out strikes are forbidden.  

However, in many jurisdictions where such a prohibition of workers’ rights applies, minimum service agreements are often agreed.  These allow essential workers who are in dispute to provide minimum services, dealing only with emergency cases.  So far, the South African government has resolutely refused to agree to such a provision.

But the focus now is on the government’s decision to implement the 3% increase along with removing, next year, a R1,000 “gratuity” that public sector workers already receive.  Nxesi has announced that this payment, as non-pensionable income,  will cease in March.  

Union sources maintain that the plan, post March, is to incorporate the gratuity into the standard, pensionable, pay scale of the pubic service.  Government could then claim it as part of a 2023 pay rise, while the unions will probably see it as a bit of unscrupulous slight of hand.  “It would be a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul;  transferring money from one pocket to another,” notes PSA national manager Claude Naiker.

This issue alone seems likely to provide sufficient basis for some bitter squabbling in the new year.  In the meantime, in the weeks ahead, it seems possible that, after some militant action, a lull will set in as trade unionists consider the fact that the festive season is dawning:  nobody wants to be on strike over Christmas.

Workers receiving even a few rand extra as the season looms, will be less inclined to take action at this time of year, even if they are disappointed and angry about the dictated 3%.  This is something that has clearly entered the calculations of government negotiators.

They may be right, and industrial calm may apply next month throughout much of the public sector.  But all government is doing is buying time while the levels of distrust and resentment increase.  Much tougher times seems to lie ahead for both sides in what promises to a lengthy period of ongoing strife.

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