South African Government-Pay Dispute With Unions Heads for Court

A pay dispute between South Africa’s government and its 1.3 million workers is set to be heard by the Labor Appeals Court on Wednesday, after labor unions rejected a proposal to delay the case.

“We don’t want to go outside of the court processes because we no longer have confidence” in negotiations, Reuben Maleka, spokesman for the Public Servants Association, which represents more than 240,000 government employees, said by phone. “We have been at this since April with many failed promises along the way.”

Under an accord agreed in 2018, state workers were granted raises of as much as 1 percentage point more than the inflation rate. The government later backtracked, saying it would cap pay at prevailing rates because it couldn’t afford to increase them. The matter went to court after mediation efforts failed.

Taking a hard line against the unions is politically risky for President Cyril Ramaphosa, because they backed his rise to power and help the ruling African National Congress mobilize electoral support. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s largest labor group, has warned it may withdraw its support for the ANC in next year’s municipal elections if the government doesn’t implement the agreed increase.

Postponement Request

The Department of Public Service and Administration, which negotiates pay with state workers, requested that the lawsuit be postponed until February, according to the State Attorney. “There is a realistic prospect of resolving the dispute among the parties, which would be preferable to having it determined by a court,” it said in a letter to the unions Tuesday. “The settlement options under discussion require time.”

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union also said it was “vehemently opposed” to any bid to postpone the case.

“We will not allow government to renege on binding collective bargaining agreements willy-nilly as this sets a bad precedent to other employers,” it said in a statement. “This is a do or die fight.”

The government has little room to accede to union demands for more money. A lockdown instituted in late March to curb the spread of the coronavirus has decimated growth and tax revenue, and pushed state debt to levels that the National Treasury has warned are unsustainable.

In the mid-term budget in October, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said the civil-servant wage freeze should be extended for a further three years to help bring debt under control, a proposal that has further raised union ire.

The attempt to postpone the court case “has to do with next year’s local government elections,” Maleka said. “This is now about the future of government and that has nothing to do with us. We just want the agreement to be honored.”

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