Government faces strike action over protracted wage talks

The Public Servants Association (PSA) will start balloting its members in favour of a strike as the union grows increasingly frustrated with protracted government wage negotiations. 

“The employer has plunged the public service into total collapse, and the PSA has strongly warned against this before. This is a sad day, when government fails to comprehend the dire consequences of this non-resolution,” PSA deputy general manager, Tahir Maepa, said on Tuesday.

While government has kept mum on its wage offer, it is reported to be 7% increases at junior salary levels and 6% for senior staff (approximately 2% higher than the estimated Consumer Price Index of 5.2% for 2018).

Unions are demanding between 10% and 12% wage hikes, the abolition of lower salary levels and the delinking of housing allowances when both spouses work in the public sector.

The parties will reconvene at the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC) on Tuesday afternoon. The current wage deal lapsed on March 31, and negotiations have been ongoing since October.

“The employer indicated that they [would] not improve the offer, with a hope that other unions will sign the deal on the table by tomorrow," said Maepa.

Unions divided?

However, the largest union in the public sector, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), maintains it is not ready to ink the offer.

The Congress of South African Trade Union (Cosatu) affiliate held a bargaining forum on Monday to receive a mandate from its members. After extensive and robust consultation, it said, it had taken the decision to "further robustly engage the employer to consider our initial position".

“Indeed, our members are extremely unhappy with the offer and hold a strong view that to accept it, as it is, will be a great loss,” the Nehawu Secretariat said in a statement on Monday night.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs warned last week that the public-sector wage was “the most challenging issue in the current pipeline” in South Africa. The above-inflation increases on the table were “disappointing”, it added, as government’s wage bill as a percentage of its expenditure was higher than other emerging markets.

The seven public-sector Cosatu unions took a strong stance in March and April and warned of a looming strike, but have toned down their threats, striking a more reconciliatory tone.

They face the difficulty of having been strong supporters of former unionist Cyril Ramaphosa’s bid to become president, and a government shutdown will tarnish the early days of his administration.

The Department of Public Service and Administration has emphasised several times that it is working towards a credible salary outcome.  

* Sign up to Fin24's top news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO FIN24'S NEWSLETTER