Business Maverick


Organised labour goes for broke on 2021 wage hikes for public servants

Organised labour goes for broke on 2021 wage hikes for public servants
Public sector workers hold up money notes as they march through the streets of Pretoria, South Africa on 19 August 2010. (Photo by Gallo Images/Foto24/Felix Dlangamandla)

Wage talks between the government and public sector workers for the next year usually start in October. At least one trade union wants public servants to get an inflation-busting wage increase of expected consumer price inflation in 2021 (3.3%) plus 2%.

Public sector workers are preparing to further squeeze state coffers by proposing wage increases of more than 5% during the government’s 2021/22 financial year, as a new round of compensation talks looms.

Wage talks between the government and trade unions representing public sector workers usually start in October every year at the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council, where terms of employment are discussed.

Trade unions are already talking about tabling inflation-busting wage increases at the council despite the government’s plan to cut the wage bill by R160-billion over the next three years, as it is the largest component of government expenditure – at R639-billion for the 2020/21 financial year.

The government has consistently improved the pay of public sector workers over the past decade – with public finances allocated to consumption measures instead of initiatives that grow the economy. In 2020 alone, the government expects to spend almost 60% of tax revenue (42% in 2019) on paying 1.2 million public servants – just 2.2% of the population.

The Public Servants’ Association (PSA), which represents about 240,000 public sector workers, wants to table a more than 5% increase in 2021/22 for workers in the low- to middle-income categories. For this category of workers, the PSA has set wage increases at consumer price inflation (CPI or inflation, which the trade union expects to be 3.3% in 2021) plus 2%. Meanwhile, higher-income workers would either get wage increases that are only linked to inflation or a wage freeze in some cases.

Any wage increase for public sector workers – including nurses, teachers, doctors, police and correctional services officers – would undermine the government’s three-year plan to cut expenditure to reach a surplus and stabilise debt at 87.4% of gross domestic product.

Another union weighs in

Other trade unions are still having internal discussions about their desired wage increases.  The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) is one of the unions, with its general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, saying the preferred wage increase will be based on expected inflation. 

“The additional percentage on top of inflation will be up for debate with the economic section of our labour federation,” Maluleke told Business Maverick

During previous wage talks at the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council, Maluleke was the chief negotiator for Cosatu-affiliated unions including Sadtu, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA and the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union.

The government and organised labour have been in a spat at the Labour Court in Johannesburg over wage increases for public sector workers under a three-year wage agreement that ends in 2020.  The government has reneged on its promise of giving public sector workers salary increases of between 4.3% and 5.4% – depending on their employment level and take-home pay – from 1 April 2020, because it is broke. If the labour court rules in favour of organised labour, the government will be on the hook for salary increases and back pay at an estimated R37.8-billion.

Maluleke said organised labour will continue to table its wage increase demand for 2021 even though the labour court dispute is ongoing.

Meanwhile, the PSA said it wants to table wage increase demands before the main February 2021 Budget, where additional tax revenue measures and government expenditure can be proposed. In doing so, the PSA wants to “influence the allocation of funds to afford public servants an increase”. 

Covid-19 and dire public finances

The PSA said it was aware that public finances had been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is not backing down on its demands. 

“It is, therefore, important that a fair balance of needs be maintained to ensure that public servants can maintain their purchasing power in the face of soaring costs of food, water, electricity, fuel and transport. The PSA’s 2021/22 wage demand will, among others, focus on a real wage increase and various non-monetary items. These include remote working and the creation of childcare facilities at workplaces,” the union said.

Sadtu’s Maluleke said the union cannot be sympathetic to the government and its dire finances during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Workers are faced with the Covid-19 reality every day at the workplace. Nurses, police, teachers are under pressure and working long hours. We cannot sympathise with a government that speaks with a forked tongue. It says it wants to deal with corruption, but it is not dealing with it. The government says it is serious about dealing with corruption, but it appoints incompetent people through cadre deployment and individuals who are stealing Covid-19 relief funds.” DM/BM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Peter Doble says:

    Unless Tito Mboweni can become SA’s Margaret Thatcher then this unsustainably huge public sector and merry go round of inflation busting wage increases will inevitably destroy the future of the economy.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    When can we see performance related increases? Many doctors, nurses and teachers have gone over and above expectations during this pandemic and demonstrated that they deserve well above average increases. However, we still waste days battling with driver’s licence renewals and any interaction with the Department of Home Affairs is a nightmare. Last time I had to renew my driver’s licence I chatted to friends and formed a view of the wasted time. My calculation was that driver’s licence renewals alone cost the economy R 8,5 billion in unproductive time. We still have potholes in our streets, and in our area refuse is often not collected. Water pressure is throttled, and electricity is cut off because Municipal workers are ill-disciplined or incompetent. The “one-agreement-suits-all” approach is just not on. Those dedicated doctors, nurses, teachers and others who go the extra mile deserve above inflation increases. Municipal workers who don’t pay invoices, leading to throttled water pressure or small businesses going under, should get no increases at all. In fact they should be fired. Home Affairs workers in offices where any queue is longer than 10 people should get no increase at all. Why can’t public sectors workers be treated like all other workers – increases are rewards for productive contributions.

  • Bruce Kokkinn says:

    It is a matter of Rands and Sense. The government cannot balance the books and further loans will encumber the tax base for years to come. Already we see the tax base being eroded by economic collapse, covid, tax and brain drain emigration. At some juncture the government must confront the union demands, corruption recoveries, and at the same time reward those who have saved our bacon in the pandemic. Service has been taken out of the Public Service and replaced by red tape, time consuming attitudes that should not be rewarded.

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