Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union.
Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union.

Government must honour the salary deal that was signed with unions

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 13, 2020

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Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union

South Africa’s constitutional changes – especially in the labour sector – received international acclaim for discarding the oppressive apartheid policy that stripped the majority of the country’s citizens of their political rights rendering them slave labourers in the land of their birth.

Our democratic government introduced new far-reaching, progressive laws and policies that sought to restore dignity to millions of workers and improve their livelihoods.

Workers, including about two million in the public service, benefited from the new labour framework. Democratic and consultative processes were implemented, thus giving workers proper representation and platforms for articulating their needs.

One of the stand-out features was the right of trade unions to represent the interests of their members in a meaningful way. Unilateral decisions from employers – including the state – became a thing of the past.

In the public-sector space, workers still faced challenges. But there was a mutual respect between the state and the public-sector unions. This was further strengthened by the establishment of the bargaining councils where employers and employees will negotiate, resolve issues, and enter into mutually binding agreements and disputes adjudicated.

The cordial relationship was further strengthened when the state and the unions agreed to a three-year, multi-term deal for salary adjustments and improvements to working conditions in the public services, for the 2018/2019, 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 financial years.

The deal was struck after seven months of intense but cordial negotiations, and the participating unions signed on June 8, 2018.

For the first two financial years, the state stuck to the letter of the deal and implemented its provisions without any qualms. We were all pleased. We felt the spirit of meaningful negotiations and mutual respect between the employer and the unions had triumphed. We were happy that the days of our being bullied and undermined by the state were over.

But our optimism was misplaced. Just before the commencement of the third financial year, the state reneged on its agreement. The state argued there was no budget for the increases and/or the increases were unaffordable and offended public policy. It further stated the increases offended the constitutional provisions that imposed a duty on it to affect citizens’ constitutional rights and values.

It said it had a duty to deliver services to the poor and vulnerable, to relieve the distress and hardship caused by Covid-19 under the current economic crisis.

Almost as an afterthought, it added the implementation of the increases was subject to a tacit condition that cost-cutting measures proposed by the Department of Public Service had to have been successfully carried out.

This was not in the signed agreement.

Lastly, the state said the increases would cost R37.8billion, but – given the prevailing macroeconomic circumstances, coupled with other factors such as the current Covid-19 pandemic – it would have to borrow R70bn.

What the state cannot seem to understand is that contractual agreements that affect the future of public servants must be honoured.

If the state can simply change its views, what is the hope for the rule of law being upheld in other facets of society?

Providing flimsy excuses and moving the proverbial goalposts is unacceptable. For two years, the state honoured the agreement in full. There was nothing about offending public policy.

While we acknowledge the tough economic times, we believe the state’s reasoning is insulting and inadequate. It smacks of arrogance and belittles the labour movement.

Public servants are breadwinners supporting families, most of whom are struggling to make ends meet. They are mothers and fathers. They are daughters and sons of proud parents. They make huge personal sacrifices.

Daily we see how hard public servants work in trying conditions. During the pandemic, many have risked their lives rendering essential services to the needy. Tragically, some have died while trying to help the sick.

In a survey of our schools, SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) found a gross lack of personal protective equipment for teachers, education support personnel and learners, and a lack of appropriate infrastructure at many schools. Despite these hardships, the teachers have not shirked from their responsibilities.

Yet the state believes it will offend public policy by increasing the salaries of these workers, who are toiling to keep South Africa going. Who did the state consult about this contrived so-called offence public policy excuse?

Instead, it is trying to appease foreign bodies such as Moody’s rating agency and the International Monetary Fund by reneging on its deal to increase public-service salaries. We are an independent country that can make its own decisions. We cannot allow our affairs to be dictated or influenced by these foreign bodies.

The state should be frank and honest about the root cause of its current economic woes: corruption. It was announced recently that more than R500bn was lost due to rampant corruption over the past decade or so.

For the past three years, law-abiding South Africans have been stunned by brazen tales of greed and corruption emerging from the Zondo Commission, showing how the finances of the state have been systematically siphoned off.

In most cases, the perpetrators are well known. But little or no action is being taken against them. Nor are effective steps being taken to reclaim the looted funds.

This lack of consequence management encourages the cycle of corruption crippling state financial resources. One of the results is that the legitimate salary increases for hard-working public-service employees are deemed offensive to public policy.

About 10 days ago, the outgoing auditor-general, Kimi Makwetu, revealed a litany of corruption, wastage and inefficiencies in the management of R147bn of the broader R500bn Covid-19 relief and economic stimulus package.

The government funded this package by redirecting 2020/2021 budgets and securing loans. The auditor-general found the relief package “landed in a weak control environment”. He also observed that “emergency responses and quick actions are required to save lives and livelihoods, but the easing of controls and the streamlining of processes and procedures to respond to the crisis, expose the government to the risks of the misuse or abuse of public resources”. In conclusion, he lamented the remedial efforts of his office were ignored.

The state cannot provide increases for the public service, yet it was capable of borrowing R500bn – and let it loose into an environment riddled by weak control.

Labour should not be made to suffer for the state’s poor planning and lack of concrete action against corruption.

We are hopeful the impasse over salary increases will be resolved amicably. Any disruption in the public services is generally detrimental to the poor who solely rely on public services in the country.

We shall continue to engage the state until an amicable resolution is found.

* The view expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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