Govt now wants wage dispute hearing with public sector employees postponed to February

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Minister of Public Service and Administration, Senzo Mchunu.
Minister of Public Service and Administration, Senzo Mchunu.
  • Government wants a hearing on a major wage dispute with employees to be postponed to February.
  • According to a letter from the state attorney, the state now wants to rather reach an out of court settlement with unions.
  • It estimates that unions may need about two months to consider its new proposal.

The government wants a hearing on its long-running wage dispute with state employees, which was due to be heard in court on Wednesday, to be postponed to February so that unions can consider a settlement instead.

The request for postponement was sent in a letter on Tuesday from the state attorney to all related parties in the matter, mainly members of the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council.

Earlier this year a case was lodged by public service unions against the state for reneging on a planned wage increase related to the final year of an agreement signed in 2018. This is part of government's plan to slash its compensation budget by R160 billion over three years as it seeks to get control of the country's finances.

This year government managed to reduce the bill by R36.5 billion, Fin24 previously reported.

"Government has reached out to unions to try to resolve the dispute through an out of court settlement," the letter from the state attorney reads. The state believes there is a "realistic prospect" to resolve the dispute, which it views as preferable to having it determined by a court ruling.

According to the state attorney, government wants unions to take about two months to consider the settlement. 

"Time is required for government to work out, calculate and then convey to the unions, the precise details of what the settlement means for the different salary levels in the bargaining unit.

"Time is also required to allow the unions to consider the settlement, to discuss it with their members and to take mandates," the letter read.

But the parties only have until 13:00 on Tuesday to confirm whether the labour court can be approached for the postponement.

One of the unions set to face the state in court, the Public Servants Association, issued a statement on Monday indicating it had engaged with the Minister of the Public Service and Administration, Senzo Mchunu in a virtual meeting on Sunday where a proposal was made.

However, the PSA said it intends to go ahead with legal processes.

"The PSA reminded the minister that the salary dispute is currently sub judice and it would be appropriate for any proposal to be forwarded to the respective legal teams for consideration.

"The PSA will thus continue with the legal process. Any tangible proposal to be considered before judgement is handed down will be consulted with members," the statement read.

The union said the hearing of the dispute is "one of the most important and defining events in the history of South African labour law," and said it still believes it has a strong case. 

"Collective agreements must be honored and that public servants, like any other worker in the country, must be paid the salaries due to them," it said.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) issued a statement indicating it is "vehemently opposed" to any postponement or "delaying tactics" by government.

"… We have run out of patience for their silly antics. Our members and workers are currently facing financial hardships because of the decision by government not to pay salary increases which were due on the 1st April 2020," Nehawu's statement read.

"For us, this is a do or die fight and we are not prepared to lose at all. The shenanigans by government are a frontal attack on collective bargaining and a declaration of war on workers."

*This article was updated at 13:55 on Tuesday, 1 December to include comment from Nehawu.

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