NEWS
13/06/2018 11:45 SAST | Updated 13/06/2018 13:49 SAST

SA Narrowly Avoids Crippling Strikes In The Public Sector For Now... But At What Cost?

Salary increase for puplic servants are already over Treasury's budget, and Eskom says it cannot afford to give its workers an increase at all.

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South Africa seems to have narrowly avoided strike action by a significant portion of government employees that would have potentially slowed or shut down government departments, Eskom, and the agency providing social grants. Wage negotiations in all three cases have broken down, and strikes planned for this week have been called off... for now. Eskom workers have not formally called a strike but are in the process of exhausting their options before doing so, after wage talks deadlocked.

But while strike action is off the cards for now, the cost to government is already high, and the wage talks are not yet finished. Already, the wage increases for government employees excluding Eskom and South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) workers are higher than what Treasury has budgeted for, and Eskom has said it simply cannot afford any wage hikes this year, as it battles to get a handle on its debt.

Public servants

A massive strike that would have involved thousands of government employees around the country was narrowly avoided this week when trade unions accepted a wage offer. About eight months of wage negotiations saw public sector unions deadlocking with government.

A strike was planned for Monday. But when more than 50% of unions agreed to the wage settlement, the strike was called off, MoneyWeb reported.

But the agreement reportedly exceeds what National Treasury had budgeted for salary increases this year by R30-billion over the next three years. Public Service and Administration Minister Ayanda Dlodlo reportedly said government will try to streamline the public sector with early retirement and severance packages.

In an interview with Business Day in May, Dlodlo warned that government would have to cut back on critical services, because it had reached the ceiling of what government could afford. This was before the agreement with unions was signed.

Sassa

Workers at the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) have temporarily called off a strike that was due to start on Wednesday, because the Public Servants' Association (PSA) had a meeting with Social Development Minister Susan Shabangu.

According to The Citizen, the wage agreement signed by other government employees does not apply to Sassa. PSA assistant general manager of collective bargaining, Leon Gilbert, reportedly said the union met with Shabangu on Monday and the outcome was "positive".

The PSA reportedly wants a 15 percent increase for wage levels five to eight, 13 percent for levels nine to 12, more choice of medical aid schemes, that Sassa offices close over the Christmas and New Year period and a R2,500 housing allowance increase.

Eskom

Eskom employees are threatening to strike after management offered a zero percent increase across the board for its 47,000 employees. According to Fin24, talks between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa) deadlocked last week. Workers reportedly want a 15 percent increase.

But on Tuesday, the power utility reportedly said it could not afford any wage increases.

For now, workers say they will hold lunchtime pickets this Thursday across the country. Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim says the workers will exhaust all options before going on strike.

IOL reported that Numsa walked out of wage talks last week, accusing Eskom of being hostile and bullying. Numsa reportedly said Eskom brought security guards armed with high-calibre weapons to surround the negotiating venue and consistently offered a zero percent increase without showing the unions their audited financial statements.

But Eskom says its employees are essential services workers and by law, they are not allowed to strike. In a series of tweets on Tuesday, Eskom spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe said a voice note doing the rounds, saying that there would be blackouts on Thursday, was false, and said that contingency plans were in place should there be any strike action. He also said that while the company sympathised with the workers, it simply cannot afford to offer any increases.