Union slammed for plans to push ahead with march over public wage despite virus risk

Nehawu members march in Cape Town before the budget speech. (Jenni Evans  News24)
Nehawu members march in Cape Town before the budget speech. (Jenni Evans News24)

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union’s plans to march at the end of the month over continued tensions regarding the public sector wage bill have been roundly criticised as irresponsible and short-sighted, in light of the coronavirus outbreak. 

The spread of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus has gained momentum rapidly in South Africa, with 202 confirmed cases since the first case was reported on March 5. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa has introduced a range of measures to curb the spread, including a ban on public gatherings of 100 people or more. 

But Nehawu has said it still intends to march, saying it has rejected a proposal that amounted to an effective zero percent increase for public servants. The union has accused government of trying to renege on the original agreement wage agreement of CPI + 1, which was due to come into effect on April 1.

Public Service and Administration spokesperson Vukani Mbhele told Fin24 on Thursday that talks were still in progress, but could not be reached for comment since. Nehawu secretary general Zola Saphetha said nothing had changed regarding the talks or the union’s plans to march.

Business Leadership South Africa CEO Busisiwe Mavuso told Fin24 that the union was demonstrating at the most inopportune time, when the already beleaguered South African economy was about to be battered further by the coronavirus outbreak.

"The conversations were in the war room by BUSA to address the challenge, following a commitment with Nedlac  [the National Economic Development and Labour Council] as business to ensure that we deal with the commitments we have made. There is a lot of reliance on the private sector to come in and assist," said Mavuso.

Mavuso said unions needed to appreciate that government had competing priorities, more so in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when the healthcare system could be tested to its limits if government could not contain the spread.

"We were looking at the interventions, including public health, labour and economic interventions to assist. There are dimensions in public health that must be looked at including protective gear, to pathology and track and trace," Mavuso said.

Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni told Fin24 that Nehawu's insistence on raising their plight at this time would result in a loss of public sympathy, regardless of how legitimate their concerns might be, if they were seen to be putting people’s health and safety at risk.

"Another risk is that the current pandemic will leave our economy worse off than before. The public wage bill issue may be forced into a situation where the government pulls back, not because they want to, but because the economic situation compels them to," Fikeni said.

Fikeni said the unions and government would have to be more creative than they were before to find a solution to their impasse, as the challenge that the coronavirus presented to South Africa was unprecedented.

"The crisis, whose implication is not yet fully known, could have a fundamental impact on the economy in that the assumptions made today may be irrelevant tomorrow. If it becomes cataclysmic, it may change the meaning of healthcare, education, job security and the world of work," Fikeni said.

Fikeni said institutions including stock exchanges and financial markets may have to rethink the manner in which they work altogether.

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