Durban - The eThekwini Municipality has buckled under pressure from its angry employees, giving into their demands for seven years of backpay.
The about-turn follows Monday’s rampage by members of the ANC-aligned SA Municipal Workers Union (Samwu). Workers marched through the city centre, threatening to shut down the municipality’s electricity grid before Wednesday’s general elections.
The city’s top brass were also earlier pelted with plastic bottles and stones during a feedback meeting on the controversial backpay issue.
The matter stemmed from the divisional conditions of service arrangement made in 2007 after various municipal entities merged to form the eThekwini Municipality.
City officials, along with the ANC-led executive committee, scrambled to put together a multimillion-rand backpay deal late on Monday night, fearing a poll backlash if the city was plunged into darkness by irate workers.
Under the deal announced on Tuesday, workers will get seven years’ backpay and not only three years, as previously offered by the city.
The first payment, which is three years’ of backpay totalling R120 million, will be paid on May 23.
The remaining four years of backpay, totalling about R80m, will be paid out in December after the city budget is approved on July 1.
The omnibus allowances that had been stripped from metro police employees will be restored and employees will be able to cash 100 percent of their long-service leave and not just 50 percent as originally offered by the city.
The offer, presented by Samwu union leaders to nearly 10 000 employees on the steps of the city hall on Tuesday, was met with wild celebration and cries of “viva”.
On Monday about 3 000 city workers marched through the city centre towards the city hall, overturning bins, burning tyres and blocking intersections with their municipal vehicles after mayor James Nxumalo told them a decision on the backpay would only be made after the elections.
Nxumalo, along with city manager S’bu Sithole, speaker Logie Naidoo, councillors Nondumiso Cele, Fawzia Peer and ANC eThekwini chairman Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo – the MEC for health – had to be whisked away by bodyguards when angry employees hurled plastic bottles and stones at them.
Addressing thousands of Samwu members on Tuesday, the union’s regional secretary, Nhlanhla Nyandeni, said they did not have any problem with the city’s administration and put the blame squarely at the feet of former city manager, Michael Sutcliffe.
He said Sutcliffe was the person responsible for “arrogantly” implementing the 2007 divisional conditions of service agreement, which stripped thousands of workers of benefits.
Nyandeni also accused Sutcliffe of appealing against a Labour Court ruling that sided with employees and dragging the matter to the Supreme Court of Appeal.
Speaking to the Daily News after the meeting, Nyandeni said they were happy with the city’s offer and hoped to sign a formal agreement by Friday.
He denied there had been any political pressure to hammer out a deal before the elections, saying members would have still have gone out in their numbers to vote for the ANC. “But there was pressure on the ANC part of exco because Samwu is at the forefront of all ANC activities,” he said.
“If Samwu is angry you will be afraid.”
Nyandeni said Monday’s march through the city happened because members were angry the process had been dragging on for so long.
He, however, denied that Samwu members were behind the trashing of the city.
“Until someone provides us with definitive proof that it was our members we will not comment.”
DA caucus leader, Zwakele Mncwango, said the city had no option but to agree to the union’s demands.
“They were going to cut off the electricity and throw the city into darkness on election day. That threatened the safety of the elections,” he said.
Mncwango said while he agreed with the city’s decision to pay the workers, their actions on Monday had created a dangerous precedent.
“Does this mean that every time they want something they are going to hold the city and the ratepayer to ransom? We need to have a decisive leadership in council who will be able to avoid getting into these situations,” he said.
“Besides having a legal obligation to pay workers, the city should also have a moral obligation to pay them what they are owed.”
Municipal spokesman, Thabo Mofokeng, said they would not be commenting on the offer until they had “official confirmation” from the unions on their acceptance'.
Sutcliffe: apartheid pay was the target
Former city manager Michael Sutcliffe said on Tuesday it was “ridiculous” that the issue over the divisional conditions of service was being personalised.
He said the point of implementing new service agreements in 2007 had been to do away with apartheid pay structures, which meant that some city workers were paid more than others for doing the same job.
For example, some metro police staff had received a danger allowance for sitting behind a desk while firefighters had not, he said.
“There were various aspects of the old service agreements that were unfair and needed to be changed.”
He said the divisional conditions of service had been agreed upon by all parties before they were implemented, but the unions had “disassociated their signatures” from the agreement and embarked on court action.
Sutcliffe said he was not a signatory to that agreement.
He said the decision to fight the unions in court had not been his decision alone.
It had been the decision of the city council, which had the support of the ANC leadership.
“We got legal advice every step of the way. This was not a decision taken in some dark room or corner somewhere.
“We had the support of our party, which was the ANC, every step of the way.”
Sutcliffe said that when he left the city in 2011, he understood that the matter would be “settled politically”.
“I don’t know what happened subsequently. There was supposed to have been a sober sitting down of (political) leaders to look at what aspects made sense and what did not and come up with something that was fair and just.
“I have no clue what happened after I left.
“The intention of the service agreement was to get rid of the inequities of apartheid and if anyone would like to defend those apartheid inequities let them stand up.”