Public service wage gap

2015-05-12 15:04
Terry Bell

Terry Bell

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DON’T blame workers for poor management. And feel some sympathy for any competent managers, whether in a large school, a government department, or parastatal who often have to deal with a legacy of maladministration, all too often accompanied by levels of corruption.

This became particularly pertinent as South Africa waited for Monday, May 11, which was D (for decision) Day for the 2014/15 public sector wages and conditions negotiations. It is then that the government is scheduled to table a probable final offer to the unions, a process that has taken more than seven months, including a deadlock and a process of conciliation.

Whatever the outcome, the primary blame for this and other lengthy delays in public sector pay talks, rests with the government. In 2012, for example, the talks dragged on for 11 months; the current negotiations started back in September last year.

The reason? As an employer, the government is committed, by law and international convention, to collective bargaining. However, in setting a national budget, the government predetermines, without negotiation, the extent of the benefits to be granted to public service workers.

This contradiction led, amid considerable acrimony, to Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, as Public Services minister in 2001, imposing a pay deal on the unions. While such a move is unlikely this year, it remains a possibility.

It was for this reason that the unions wanted an early start to negotiations in the hope that a deal would be struck in advance of the budget and so influence the outcome. As it was, the state’s initial offer in December was a 5,8% pay rise. But then came the budget and this offer was dropped to 4,8%.

It now seems likely that if yesterday’s offer amounts to a seven percent improvement over coming months, a deal will be struck. However, there will still be a number of outstanding issues, some of which have been “on the table” since 2007.

One of these is the union demand to close the wage and welfare gap by reducing the number of grades. This gap is not as great as in the private sector, but is still considerable. Wages and conditions of many qualified teachers or nurses, for example, lag sorely behind those of individuals who form the upper echelons of the bureaucratic elite.

While newspaper headlines scream about overpaid public servants “sucking SA dry”, the annual pay of a director-general is 14 times that of an auxillary nurse with decades of experience. A nurse at this level, even after 20 years or more, can have a take-home package of less than R120 000 a year compared to the R1,5 million in average pay for a director-general (DG).

At provincial and national level, there is a small army of chief directors, along with DGs and deputy DGs whose pay ranges from just short of R1 million to R1,7 million a year. Then there are the effective members of the public sector board, the president and his minister, whose basic pay alone amounts to more than R2 million each, along with perks such as free housing, cars, air fares and expenses.

And while it is true that more than half of the country’s public servants, especially in the education and medical sectors, earn more than R15 000 a month (R180 000 a year), they are almost all people with relatively high educational qualifications and skills.

So it is little wonder, given their pay and conditions, that numbers continue to leave the professions or to live and work abroad. Teacher unions also point out that increasing numbers of their members are not only leaving the profession but, faced with financial problems, especially in terms of housing, are cashing in their pensions.

These are workers who are in the invidious position of earning too much to qualify for state-assisted housing, but too little to obtain a bond to buy a house. The same applies to nurses and to many of the perhaps 40% and more of state employees who earn less than R15 000 a month.

At the lower end of the scale are those workers, including long-serving auxillary nursing staff, whose income is less than R10 000 a month. The unions complain that their “previous learning”, sometimes over decades of service, is not taken into account.

• Terry Bell is a journalist, commentator and author specialising in political and economic analysis and labour matters

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