Beware coronavirus if public sector wage deal is nixed, warns emergency workers union

The South African Emergency Personnel Union has slammed the attempted review of a resolution to increase wages in line with the consumer price index, saying the coronavirus pandemic should be considered before the deal is nixed.

The union expressed fears that workers who have been expecting an increase in April will not receive one due to the spread of the virus. Should public sector workers protest, it warned, the pandemic would be "uncontrollable".

The coronavirus is expected to spark an increased need for emergency staff in the short term. Meanwhile, the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) has threatened to take to the streets if public service wage talks fail.

The coronavirus that was first detected in South Africa two weeks ago now has 116 confirmed cases across the country. President Cyril Ramaphosa met with party leadership in Parliament on Wednesday to discuss the response to the pandemic, as South Africans started social distancing and stocking up on toiletries and other supplies.

Government heads of essential state services, including Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize and Minister of Police Bheki Cele, have stressed that services will continue as government continues to come to grips with the outbreak.

During his Budget speech, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced plans to save over R160 billion on the public service wage bill over the next three years. 

'Strategy to frustrate workers'

In a statement, SAEPU said it was worried because workers are expected to get increase around 15 April, but added that employers were still adamant that the increase should be reviewed.

"We regard this as planned strategy to frustrate workers because we wrote a letter via the PSCBC (Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council) to check the recent tabling of CPI by employer and the response was to review the resolution," the statement said.

SAEPU said the coronavirus pandemic, the latest technical recession and the prospect of a sovereign credit rating downgrade were causes for concern. Referring to trade union Cosatu's earlier reference to an adjustment of the public service wage deal as a "declaration of war", SAEPU said SA could be affected "badly" by further instability.

"We are calling on [the] employer to reconsider the declaration of war and table the CPI because he won't stand up for the war considering the fact that public service workers will go on the streets and the [consequences] will affect the country badly," the statement said.

The statement demanded that government clearly define public service workers. It added that it understood everyone who gets funds from National Treasury to be a public servant, including municipalities, state-owned entity workers and Parliamentarians.

State-owned entity employees, in fact, do not fall under the category of public servants when negotiating their wages. SOEs negotiate these with unions directly or through the Labour Courts or the Commission of Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration, if a wage dispute escalates.

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