Early this year, as the Gqeberha local of the South African Federation of Trade Unions, we issued a statement on the war against the working class that has been burgeoning and beginning to show its explicit face during this pandemic. As the Department of Health (and Department of Education) we are heavily understaffed. All of the posts previously filled by our colleagues who have died before and during the Covid-19 pandemic remain vacant.
Adding insult to injury, on the morning of 27 July 2021 we woke up to the news that more than 50% of the public sector unions at the public sector bargaining council, except for the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), South African Police Union (Sapu), and the Police and Prison Civil Rights Union (Popcru), have accepted the pay progression of 1.5% and the gratuity allowance as an increase.
The question remains: where did these unions get the mandate to accept this offer when many of their members are surprised, angry and disdain this? Are unions not supposed to be worker-controlled? What really happened to the notion of worker control? Has worker control become a practical fallacy, when unions are going to sign life-changing agreements without consent or a mandate from their members?
As a result of the latest capitulation of some of the public sector unions to the pressure of the state, we have seen many workers reacting with shock and a great feeling of betrayal.
It is important to note that, usually, the public sector agrees to a three-year wage agreement with the government. However, the current agreement is only for one year, ending 31 March 2022. This, conveniently for the government, comes to an end after the local government elections.
After this, we will see the reversion back to austerity policies that have been implemented by the South African government. These include the reduction in government spending, comprising cuts to essential services and the public sector wage bill. A former Treasury official has gone so far as to say that these are the biggest budget cuts in post-apartheid South Africa.
Research has shown that the massive cuts proposed for the public sector wage bill will result in a decline in the number of public sector workers. This is something the country cannot afford. Not only will this mean bigger student-to-teacher ratios and a further understaffed public health sector, leading to the further collapse of social services, it will also mean greater levels of unemployment. As we have said before, the budget cuts and the attack on the public sector will lead to greater levels of joblessness and deepening inequalities.
We have long argued that there are alternatives.
As communities of the working class, we must not succumb to the argument that there is no money. There is money. Here are just some examples; there are many others.
- There is a plethora of evidence that the introduction of a progressive net wealth tax of between 3% and 7% could raise up to R165-billion per annum;
- We have been calling on the government to put a stop to corporate corruption by combating profit shifting that is costing the South African economy and workers more than R300-billion;
- Insourcing procurement — currently 40% of the government’s R800-billion procurement budget is lost to fraud and inflated prices relating to contracts with the private sector; and
- The need to put an end to the tens of billions of rands lost to corruption and wasteful expenditure.
It is also important to highlight the importance of the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF). The GEPF has just less than R2-trillion in accumulated reserves. Every month workers are contributing 6% of their salaries to the pension fund and the government makes a contribution as well. Implementing a pension fund contribution holiday could be one measure to increase workers’ disposable income.
The government can use the GEPF further by borrowing from it at below-market interest rates. This will have several important advantages. Fundamentally, it will mean the government can consolidate its debt problem (the main argument behind the government’s austerity agenda), ensuring greater levels of resources for social spending and investment into infrastructure and job-creating programmes.
In addition to decent wage increases and reversing the budget cuts on social services, we have also argued that the Eastern Cape provincial government must permanently employ all community health workers in line with resolution 1 of 2018. This was intended to ensure that it matches resources to real needs. We further argued that if the Eastern Cape provincial government was serious about zero-based budgeting it would clean up the personnel and salaries management system (Persal), removing people on retirement or who have died long before and during the pandemic who are still reflected in establishment posts and budgets. This will make space to grant permanency and even hire new staff.
As frontline health workers, community health workers, educators, Covid-19 contract workers and many other public sector workers, we have worked at the frontline, protecting patients and staff with comorbidities. Despite our hard work as frontline workers, risking our lives in the fight against Covid-19, we are being thrown to the dogs with the excuse being that there is no money.
Yet, as we have shown, there are concrete arguments that workers are advancing that there is no reason for our leaders to succumb to the “we have no money” mantra. DM