Trade unions representing public servants are planning to approach the Constitutional Court to up the ante in their fight with the government over inflation-beating salary increases.
Trade unions affiliated with Cosatu and the Federation of Unions of SA have decided to appeal against a Labour Appeal Court ruling that handed the government a huge victory in December 2020, paving the way for it to not pay salary increases to South Africa’s 1.2 million public servants.
Public Servants Association (PSA) general manager Reuben Maleka confirmed to Business Maverick that trade unions are drafting court papers to petition the Constitutional Court. SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) general secretary Mugwena Maluleke, who speaks on behalf of Cosatu-affiliated unions, also confirmed the decision by unions to approach the country’s top court.
This adds a new twist to a long-standing dispute between the government and trade unions over a 2018 wage agreement which spans three years and proposes salary increases of between 4.4% and 5.4% for public servants from April 2020. The government refused to implement increases, saying the wage agreement had become unaffordable. This prompted trade unions – including the PSA and Sadtu – to challenge the government’s decision at the Labour Appeal Court in Johannesburg.
The court ruled on 15 December 2020 that the wage agreement was unlawful and contradicted the Constitution because it has become unaffordable for the government to implement since public finances have deteriorated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Read more here.
The ruling meant the government was no longer bound by the wage agreement, which would cost the fiscus an extra R37.8-billion for the 2020/21 financial year. The government expects to spend R639-billion in 2020/21 to compensate public servants, which is the single-largest component of its consolidated expenditure.
Sadtu’s Maluleke said the trade unions will argue at the Constitutional Court that the Labour Appeal Court dismissed their application without considering alternatives proposed by unions to implement the wage agreement. These include public servants agreeing to accept a lower percentage increase.
“We had indicated that if the Labour Appeal Court finds that the wage agreement is unaffordable and unenforceable, the court should direct the parties back to the negotiating table to talk about how the agreement can be implemented so it can be valid,” he said.
“At the Constitutional Court we want to test why the Labour Appeal Court didn’t give a particular order to say there are other alternatives that the government can use to implement the wage agreement.”
Labour is also vexed that the government knew as early as 2018 that the wage agreement was unaffordable. Instead, the government complied with the wage agreement in 2018 and 2019 by awarding public servants salary increases. Former finance minister Malusi Gigaba told trade unions in 2018 that no additional money could be made available to fund the wage agreement and proposed that 19,000 public servants should retire to free up R12-billion in additional resources.
“When there is an administrative action that is unaffordable and unlawful, any government department or state organ should not delay in terms of implementing a remedial action to correct it. In this matter, the government has delayed for more than 24 months in correcting problems of the wage agreement. This is what we will be arguing at the Constitutional Court.” DM/BM