Unions threaten ‘total shutdown’ of South Africa over wage fight

Public-sector unions have threatened to embark on mass action as part of an ongoing fight with the government around wage hikes.

The latest threat comes after the Constitutional Court ruled that the unions’ application to appeal against a Labour Court of Appeal (LAC) ruling in December was unlawful.

The court has directed that the application for leave to appeal will now only be heard on 24 August 2021.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) said it was concerned by this decision, as the matter ‘must be resolved as soon as possible.’

It raised further concerns that the Constitutional Court’s ruling will be used by the government to delay the bargaining processes for 2021/2022.

“As Nehawu, we will not tolerate any more delays and our National Executive Committee (NEC) directed provinces to convene members meetings to brief members on the progress of the negotiations, to get a fresh mandate and including starting preparations for a mass action.

“The union remains committed to fight until the bitter end to defend its members and workers against the onslaught by our democratically elected government.”

Reuben Maleka, assistant general manager of the Public Servants Association of South Africa, echoed these concerns and told Business Day that members were prepared to shut down the country if the government failed to respond to demands.

“If the employer does not respond favourably to our demands, I foresee a total shutdown of the public service. In fact, that’s where it’s going to go because of the attitude that the employer has adopted,” he said.

Cutting the wage bill 

The government’s fiscal strategy over the next three years is to narrow the deficit and stabilise the debt-to-GDP ratio, Treasury said in its budget on 24 February.

Key to this will be the reduction of government worker wages – with the issue expected to come to a head in the next few months.

“Compared with the 2020 Budget, main budget non-interest expenditure will be reduced by R264.9 billion, or 4.6% of GDP, over the MTEF period.

“Most of these adjustments are to the wage bill. Excluding compensation reductions, consolidated non-interest expenditure grows by an annual average of 0.4% in real terms,” it said.

Treasury said public service compensation absorbed 41% of government revenues in 2019/20 and 47% of revenue in 2020/21.

“Allowing the wage bill to continue rising in line with recent trends is not sustainable. It would require a substantial reduction in funding for capital investment, and critical public goods and services,” it said.

While the country’s Labour Appeals Court has sided with the government on the reneging of the 2018 wage agreements, any change to this through further court action, would leave the government with billions of rands owed to workers in back-pay.

These uncertainties, as well as the wage negotiations ahead, risk destabilising the finance ministry’s consolidation goals. Unions have made it clear that they will not take the wage cuts lying down.

Unions have said they will accept nothing less than an above-inflation pay increase in this year’s negotiations, and have threatened further strike action across the country should things not go their way.

Read: Planned ‘national shutdown’ over ANC infighting: report

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Unions threaten ‘total shutdown’ of South Africa over wage fight