eThekwini backpay deadlock drags on

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IMATU President Stanley Khoza (L) and Wilfred Shange who was the Interpreter at the IMATU meetingl. Photo: S'bonelo Ngcobo

Durban - The eThekwini Municipality and unions are heading back to the negotiating table after employees did not fully accept the city’s proposals to resolve issues of a court ruling that forces the city to pay staff more than R185 million in backpay.

More than 20 000 municipal employees have threatened to strike unless the city abides by a Supreme Court of Appeal ruling in September last year that reversed the conditions of service agreement - implemented by the city in 2007 - and ordered it to pay back affected employees who had been stripped of allowances and other benefits.

According to the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (Imatu), the biggest union among eThekwini employees, the city owes employees R185m in backpay.

However, staff who benefited from the 2007 agreement would have to pay back R233m to the city if the court order was strictly implemented.

The figures are contained in a report compiled by a technical task team established by city manager S’bu Sithole to quantify the ruling’s financial implications for the city.

According to a proposal, presented to employees at a union meeting on Tuesday, the city would only pay back affected employees for three years - as set out in the Prescription Act - and not seven years as initially believed.

This is because a claim for debt expires if no attempt to collect has been made within three years, according to the Prescription Act.

The city also agreed to give long-service employees seven years’ worth of leave that had been rescinded and made an undertaking not to go after any money owed to it by those who had benefited from the 2007 service agreement.

The city further agreed to repay eligible metro police officers - those who were not office-bound - an omnibus allowance that had been taken away. This, however, angered office-based metro police personnel, who argued that they had also received the allowance before the service agreement took effect.

Under the proposal signed off by Sithole, if the unions accepted it, the city intended to pay money owed to employees on May 23.

This elicited cheers from the hundreds of union members who packed the city hall on Tuesday.

However, many were angry that the city was only prepared to repay them three years of backpay.

Stanley Khoza, the president of Imatu, said there was nothing the union could do about getting employees seven years’ worth of backpay.

“There is an understandable outcry from people who say that they want their money owed for seven years,” Khoza said.

“But the Prescription Act comes into place where it says you can only be paid for up to three years. This is not only coming from the employer, but it is the legal opinion of our lawyers as well,” he said.

Khoza said employees had mandated the union to tell the city they wanted their backpay to be dated from September last year – when the appeal court judgment was made – and not from May this year, as suggested by the city.

“People are up to here and they just want their money now. The new negotiations with the city will take us forward on a new condition of service agreement for all council employees who will have one set of service agreements,” he said.

Jaycee Ncanana, the provincial secretary of the SA Municipal Workers Union, said the union was still in discussion with its members about the way forward.

“Some want us to take the offer, but there are others who do not want it (and want to strike). Our main aim right now is to get our members in one room and get a consolidated mandate to take to the employer,” he said.

Several municipal employees who spoke after the meeting said they were upset with the union.

“It seems as if they are siding with the municipal manager on this one. According to the court order the city should pay us out. The Prescription Act should not have any role because we interdicted the city in 2007, so in fairness we should be getting our backpay from that point because it was the city who fought us in the courts,” one employee said.

The municipality’s spokesman, Thabo Mofokeng, said discussions between the city and the unions were continuing.

“Nothing has been finalised yet and the city is still in negotiations with the union leadership. We will continue talking,” he said.

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