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Parliament, Cape Town - Lawmakers warned magistrates locked in a pay dispute with the state on Tuesday that it would be improper for them to go on strike.

“You are public servants and you are behaving like a trade union,” ANC MP John Jeffery told the Judicial Officers' Association of SA (Joasa) at a sitting of Parliament's justice portfolio committee.

Jeffery asked whether the strike would be legal.

Democratic Alliance MP Debbie Shaefer said: “The threat to strike will not do your cause any good.”

Joasa president Nazeem Joemath said he was “appalled” to learn of members' decision to launch a week-long strike from March 18.

However, he said this was a last resort in a long-running pay dispute with the independent remuneration commission.

Joemath told Sapa that 1300 of the country's 2000 magistrates were members of Joasa, but it was not clear how many of those would strike.

“You know how democracy works. Some will, some won't. We don't force anybody.”

The portfolio committee was hearing presentations by three magistrates' associations, which claim the commission failed to consider their submissions on their salary dispensation.

The commission, headed by Judge Willie Seriti, proposed an annual increase of 5.5 percent. It has been approved by the president and needs to be ratified by both houses of Parliament to take effect on April 1.

Chief among Joasa's demands is that the commission immediately institute a single pay structure for all members of the judiciary.

A letter to members states that failing this, labour action will be extended.

“From the 18th to the 22nd of March 2013, only postponements will be done. If no substantial positive developments occur between the 18th and the 25th of March, the action will be escalated,” it said.

African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart and ANC MP Makgathatso Pilane-Majake said the impact on the justice system could be dire.

“We are worried because law and order in this country depends on you,” she said.

MPs heard that magistrates were aggrieved that their salaries had shrunk in recent years from 47 percent of the chief justice's, to 30 percent of his pay package.

Jeffery said this did not mean their pay had been reduced, only that the chief justice had been granted a scale adjustment.

He said if the magistrates' demands were met, they would get an unjustifiable, “almost 100 percent” increase on their current entry level annual salary of R671 000.

The magistrates have for months sought a meeting with MPs to implore them to intervene with Judge Seriti's commission, but committee chairman Luwellyn Landers said this posed a conflict of interest for MPs whose salaries are determined by the same body.

“It is just patently wrong to say we have oversight over the IRC.”

It is expected that the committee will ratify the 5.5 percent increase when it meets again on Wednesday, but refuse any further role in the matter, as several MPs expressed the same thinking as Landers.

Shaefer said the appropriate remedy for magistrates was to take the president to court, which the Association of Regional Magistrates of SA (Armsa) has done. That case is before the Constitutional Court and judgment is expected soon.

Armsa members said they had been reluctant to launch a case against the president, but it was the only legal route as the salary increase was his decision, while being a mere recommendation of the commission.

The association's Vincent Ratshibvumo accused MPs of lacking sympathy for their plight.

“We are not happy with the position you are taking. You are passing the buck.” - Sapa