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Unions, government trust deficit key issue in pay talks

The Public Servants' Association is adamant that the government should remunerate public servants on par with the professionalism expected from them, says the writer. Picture: Soraya Crowie/ African News Agency (ANA) Archives

The Public Servants' Association is adamant that the government should remunerate public servants on par with the professionalism expected from them, says the writer. Picture: Soraya Crowie/ African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Jun 19, 2022

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By Reuben Maleka

Public service wage negotiations for 2022 started against the backdrop of the government’s failure to honour the last leg of a negotiated 2018 three-year wage agreement, and growing financial pressures on public-sector employees.

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The Public Servants Association (PSA) took this non-compliance by the government to the Constitutional Court to protect the rights and interests of public servants. Unfortunately, the court sided with the government and public servants were denied their negotiated wage increase, leaving them frustrated and creating mounting concern about the future of collective bargaining in South Africa.

For the latest round of negotiations, all unions pressed for a single-year agreement, as there is no trust in government to uphold longerterm agreements. The PSA and other unions tabled a consolidated wage demand at a special Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC) meeting last month, after parties presented their economic outlooks.

Parties agreed on a negotiation process and schedule, with the aim being to conclude negotiations by the end of June. The demands include written confirmation from Treasury to secure compliance with Public Service Regulations (Section 78 and 79) to avoid the saga of 2018.

Labour is further demanding a 10% salary increase across-the-board on the baseline, noting that the costs of electricity, food, fuel and public transport are driving expenditure beyond the CPI. The abolition of salary level one to three is sought, as these employees are struggling to afford necessities owing to the rising cost of living. Public servants also require access to their pension fund to alleviate financial hardship.

Labour is further demanding that 12% of basic salary should be offered during disasters, such as Covid-19. Medical aid is to increase by 2.6% over and above the Medical Price Index. Community health workers, teachers’ assistants, and reservists should be employed permanently.

The government, however, still insists that public servants’ remuneration accounts for almost a third of governmental expenditure, and the National Treasury is still aiming to lower the salary bill. Additionally, National Treasury has warned Parliament that the wage bill is one of the biggest threats to the country’s fiscus, with a push being made to further legislate how much workers are paid.

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This, despite over R1.5 trillion being lost owing to government corruption. This conservative estimate of monies lost by the current government excludes decades of corruption, which has resulted in poor economic growth, crumbling infrastructure with impacts on service delivery, reliance on social grants, and soaring unemployment rates. The government subsequently offered a 0% increase in response to labour’s demand.

Labour rejected this, as well as the continuation of the cash gratuity for the 2022/23 financial year. Labour reiterated the position of a pensionable increase and stuck to its demand of a 10% across-the-board increase.

The government then proposed to categorise labour’s demands by prioritising the cost-of-living and pay progression, and separating matters that are already in process at the PSCBC (for example bursary and danger-allowance).

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In short, it also proposed that other demands be combined, for example housing allowance, disaster-related matters, leave “encashment”, and tax relief, and regards access to the pension fund as a “complex matter”.

Labour, however, insisted that it would not allow the government to reduce any conditions of service. Government then proposed five scenarios for consideration by labour.

The first scenario of the continuation of the cash gratuity was rejected. The second scenario of a 4.5% increase, across all salary levels, was also rejected – as it entailed an increase of below current inflation of 5.9%, and creates a downscaling of the existing cash employees are receiving with the cash gratuity. Scenario three, of a sliding scale between 3.5% and 6%, is again, on most levels, below the current CPI and was rejected. Scenario four creates the impression that lower levels will receive a 15.4% increase and higher levels only 1.5%. In reality, most levels will receive a below-CPI increase. Scenario 5 illustrates an increase of between 1.6% (highest levels) and 10% (lowest levels). This was also rejected on the same basis as above.

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In essence, the government only took the current cash gratuity and equated it into a pensionable increase, with different permutations. It has not given any increase over and above what employees already have under PSCBC Resolution 1/2021. What it proposes on the baseline will have a detrimental impact on employees.

Labour stressed the importance of the gratuity and an improvement on the pensionable increase for all salary levels, and demanded that the government revise the budget of R20.5 billion to improve employees’ conditions of service. Failure to do so will make it difficult for parties to find one another.

The PSA is adamant that the union will not consider any offer below inflation, and that gains achieved for public servants, under resolution 1/2021, will not be sacrificed.

The PSA is further determined to seek an agreement, whereby public servants employed in essential services will also be able to exercise the fundamental Constitutional right to strike, in terms of Section 23 of the Constitution.

The PSA is, in the interest of collective bargaining and in securing public servants – who carried the country through the devastating Covid-19 pandemic – some financial relief, and is adamant that the government should remunerate public servants on par with the professionalism expected from them, rather than publicly blaming them for the country’s economic woes, inflicted by rampant, high-level fraud and corruption.

* Maleka is an assistant general manager for collective bargaining at the Public Servants’ Association

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