If government doesn’t have money to pay public wages – what are they stealing?

 ·1 Oct 2020

The National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) says that the government can’t say it has no money to honour wage agreements when so much money continues to be stolen from the state coffers.

The union said that the only way government can avoid a nationwide strike by its members is to honour wage agreements negotiated in 2018.

Public wages are set through bargaining with unions and agreements stay in force for three years. The current agreement is in place until March 2021. However, in February government asked to review the last leg of a three-year pay agreement because it said it couldn’t afford it.

In press briefing on Wednesday, Nehawu’s leadership dismissed this argument, saying that so much money was being siphoned off through state looting, that is was evident that government had plenty of money at its disposal.

“(Wages must come from) the coffers where this money is stolen from. There is money. You can’t steal if there is no money. The money is with Tito (Mboweni),” the union said.

Nehawu’s membership base exceeds 240,000 people, making it the largest public-sector union in the country. It said that any talks with the government, high level or otherwise, would not be about reviewing the wage agreement, but rather finding a way for the agreement to be honoured.

The union said that it is unfair that frontline workers are always targeted when money issues arise, but nothing is done to high-level officials.

“They are not targeting other people involved in performing public administration that are getting paid from the same public purse – parliamentarians are some of them,” it said.

National Treasury plans to cut R160 billion from the public sector wage bill over the next three years – a position that has been met with opposition from public sector trade unions.

The SAA question

The poor handling of failed airline SAA, and the government’s latest move to bail out the company so it can be restructured and relaunched, has added to the state’s woes – potentially undermining its continued claim that it has no money.

According to Intellidex analyst Peter Attard Montalto, while the government will have to move budgets around to find the money to bail out SAA yet again, the fact that it can do so will show unions – and possibly the courts – that with enough political will the state can find money.

If this is successfully argued in court by unions, the government may be forced to honour its standing wage agreement with public servants, and could see it forking out billions in back-pay.

The analyst said this would see around R32 billion in back-pay owed, and put the government on the hook for another R82 billion in future increases.

Other strike action

Government’s collision course with unions is also coming from other directions.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is continuing to intensify its national mobilisation efforts in the build-up to the upcoming socio-economic national strike set to take place on the 7 October 2020.

The federation has issued a call to all workers and South Africans to join the strike next week. Cosatu is the largest trade federation in the country with an estimated membership of 1.8 million workers.

“South Africa is teetering on the brink of collapse and it is about time we all stand up and demand urgent action from policymakers and decision-makers,” the trade federation said.

While the strike action will also primarily focus on the wage dispute with the government, Cosatu said that the federation also wants additional support to be given to frontline workers, and better governance.

Read: Major strike planned for South Africa next week – this is what unions are angry about

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