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The Congress of South African Trade Unions in the Western Cape has described the next two days as make-or-break in the public sector wage bargaining. Unions in the public sector and government representatives are locked in conciliation meetings today and Tuesday following the collapse of the public service wage negotiations. The 3% offer by government did not enjoy the majority of support from the unions after 21 days in the bargaining council, and was withdrawn for the unions to return to their initial demand of 10%.

Addressing workers who were demonstrating outside Groote Schuur hospital on Monday, the Western Cape provincial secretary, Malvern de Bruyn, said that if a settlement is not reached on Tuesday, the next step for workers is to go on strike. “We don’t want to strike but the government is forcing us. They want to insult the workers with 3% while inflation is 7%. They must not expect us to keep quiet. The next two days are make-or-break,” he said.

Demonstrations and pickets were organised in major centres in all nine provinces. Katarina Amadou-Yolandi, the provincial treasurer for the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru), said the demonstrations are to show the government that they are serious about the demand for a 10% salary increase.

Collective bargaining under threat?

The unions accuse the government of undermining collective bargaining. In 2018, reminds the provincial secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), Baxolise Mali, the government signed a three-year multi-term agreement that they broke in 2020. “The workers got their salary increases in 2018 and in 2019 but in 2020, even before the outbreak of Covid-19 in South Africa, the government said they wanted to reduce the ‘ballooning’ public sector wage bill. They wanted to cut the 5,4% and 4,9% salary increases that they were supposed to pay. The cuts were going to affect the public servants only and not members of parliament and judges who fall under the public sector,” said Mali.

Covid-19 presented a useful ‘excuse’ for the government to claim that they do not have enough money to implement the agreement. Mali continued,”In 2021, the government did not give an increase but R1,000 as a gratuity which does not contribute to pension. Now, in 2022, they are only offering 3% salary increase. When we reject it, they unilaterally implement it. They even lied and said that it amounts to 7,5%.”

The government is also accused of bargaining in bad faith and want to use the media and court of public opinion to pressurise the workers. ”The last time there were negotiations we rejected this 3%, now we hear from the media of 7,5% of which we have no knowledge when that was concluded,” said Pat Raolane the provincial secretary of Popcru.

Demonstration outside Khayelitsha District Hospital on Monday. Photo by Lihle Krwala

In a letter dated 17 October that was leaked on the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (Nupsaw) twitter page, the acting Minister of Public Service and Administration Thulas Nxesi informed the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC) general secretary, Frikkie de Bruin, that he was considering implementing the 3% wage hike in line with the Public Service Act. Section 5 of the act allows government to enforce salary increases unilaterally, as long as doing so does not reduce wages and benefits.

This, Nxesi’s letter states, was to be done before Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana tabled his medium-term budget policy statement (MTBPS) in parliament. In his speech, Godongwana reiterated the government’s stance that public sector workers will only get a 3% salary increase this year.

“The saddest part in the history of bargaining in South Africa is that the government who decides to unilaterally implement the wage offer is the government that in the main is led by former trade unionists. The president of this country is a former general secretary of the NUM. The acting minister of DPSA is a former general secretary of Sadtu. They are at the helm of attacks on collective bargaining. The acting minister of DPSA is the deputy chairperson of the Communist Party. So, it is very clear that we are on our own and that those who use our votes to bargain for positions as MPs and ministers must be frustrated by what we are doing,” said Mali.