South African public sector unions take wage dispute to court

The government told unions early this year that it could not afford the final year of the wage deal struck in 2018.
Image: Shutterstock

Five public sector trade unions have taken the South African government to court to try to force it to pay salary increases agreed as part of a three-year wage deal, court papers showed on Friday.

The government told unions early this year that it could not afford the final year of the wage deal struck in 2018.

It kept civil servants’ salaries flat in April, the first month of the new fiscal year, as the cost of fighting the new coronavirus piled further pressure on already stretched state finances.

Many South Africans backed the decision not to increase civil servants’ pay, in the context of a major economic crisis caused by Covid-19 that has left millions potentially facing hunger.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has earmarked R500 billion ($30 billion) for relief, of which nearly a fifth is for unemployment benefits and social grants for the poor. Public sector wages make up around a third of government spending in a normal year.

In court papers filed in the Labour Court and seen by Reuters, the Public Servants Association and four unions representing health workers and teachers argued the government had breached the employment contracts of their members.

They are seeking an order forcing the government to pay the inflation-linked salary hikes agreed in 2018.

Other unions that are part of the COSATU federation and are more closely aligned with the governing African National Congress are trying to secure the salary hikes via arbitration, after early attempts to resolve the dispute in a bargaining council failed.

A spokesman for the Department of Public Service and Administration said the government would comment when dispute resolution processes had run their course.

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Ironically, most state departments run on 50% of total staff at a particular time. If they don’t “work” full day’s work, every alternative day, they “work” one week on and one week off, while still receiving full pay. This is like a 100% increase already? On top of that, they still want a salary increase? I don’t think the tax payer should allow this to happen!

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