South Africa


Cosatu and government on collision course over public wage bill cuts

(Image: COSATU logo)

Public servants are ready to take to the streets and strike should the government attempt to renege on an upcoming wage increase agreement. 

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) was critical of Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni’s Budget speech, in particular his announcement that the government would look to trim the public service wage bill.

The federation said the announcement was “an ambush and a declaration of war,” especially considering that public servants are due for a wage increase on 1 April 2020, as part of a multi-year wage agreement dating back to 2018.

Cosatu  stated that it saw the announcement as a way for the government to try and go back on this agreement, with secretary-general Bheki Ntshalintshali calling the minister’s announcement “an attack on collective bargaining, an attack on multi-year wage agreements and act of undermining wage agreements”.

Cosatu was speaking at a media briefing post its ordinary three-day Central Executive Committee (CEC) that started on Monday, the 24 February and ended 26 February 2020.

During the delivery of the Budget2020 speech on Wednesday 26 February, Mboweni announced plans by the government to reduce the public sector wage bill, the minister touting possible reductions amounting to R160.2 billion over the next three years.

From their headquarters in Braamfontein, the federation hit back:

“Cosatu finds the government’s continuous attacks on public servants silly and tiresome. Little recognition is given to the conditions facing public servants, like being overworked and underpaid.”

The minister had initially tabled the reduction in his Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement which he presented to Parliament in October 2019.

“Civil servants’ salaries have grown by about 40% in real terms over the past 12 years, without equivalent increases in productivity. Growth in the wage bill has begun crowding out spending on capital projects for future growth and items that are critical for service delivery,” Mboweni had said during the policy statement.

However, Cosatu challenged this notion of the public service wage bill being bloated, citing that Mboweni himself had stated that there was a shortage of public servants such as nurses, teachers and the police.

“We stand by what we’ve always said, that public service is not bloated. And if it were bloated it means that even the challenges that the minister spoke about yesterday, he would’ve not have mentioned. He acknowledged that you have a shortage of public servants,” said Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi. 

“Perhaps they may need to tell us where it is bloated because I think we all agree with them that it is not bloated where service is rendered. It could be bloated at management level,” Losi added.

In an innovative effort to reduce the public service bill, the government had encouraged public servants aged 55 to 59 to take early retirement packages – without having to worry about penalties for early retirement. 

Of the 30,000 public servants who were expected to take up the offer of early retirement, only 4,600 employees have since shown any interest.

First deputy president of Cosatu Mike Shingange said the government could not force public servants to take up early retirement if they did not wish to do so, pointing out that it was illegal. 

Shingange also called on the government to lead by example. 

“The government is the biggest employer, it’s the custodian of the policies, regulations and laws in this country. They have the responsibility to not just protect and implement, but lead by example. If you do these that you are doing, what do you expect the private sector will do? When the government – people who make laws and are supposed to defend laws – treat the laws like this,” said Shingange.

Other workers’ federations have also weighed in, among them the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu).

“The government has presented a budget whose main tenet is an attempt to solve the economic crisis on the back of the working class. We reiterate what we have said before, it is not the working class that has created the economic havoc, but the greed of the capitalist class,” said Saftu in statement on 27 February.

Mboweni had anticipated the backlash as he stated in speech: “On the wage bill issue, we will find each other. It will take a bit of time…”

However, Cosatu has made it clear that any attempt by the government to revert on upcoming wage increase agreement will see their members take to streets, with Shingange stating they were “mobilised and ready to fight”. DM



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