Unions challenge Mboweni to side with workers on public wages, pensions

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Finance Minister Tito Mboweni.
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni.
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  • Numsa said it was suspicious of National Treasury's plans to allow South Africans to withdraw a portion of their pension savings.
  • Cosatu said Finance Minister Tito Mboweni's leadership of National Treasury was an obstacle to the advancement of pro-worker economic policies.
  • Mboweni defended his stance on the public service wage bill, saying he allow a sovereign debt crisis under his watch.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and Cosatu say they are skeptical of Finance Minister Tito Mboweni's interventions aimed at supporting struggling workers, as well as his stance on the public service wage bill.

Numsa, which was an affiliate of Cosatu until 2014, was particularly critical of National Treasury's proposal to allow South Africans to withdraw a portion of their pension savings under certain circumstances.

Earlier this week, Treasury's deputy director general Ismail Momoniat said limited withdrawals may soon be allowed as a measure to support those who had lost part of their income during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Currently, retirement fund members can only withdraw from pensions when they retire, resign or are retrenched.

Both unions also slammed Mboweni's stance that the public service wage bill should be contained or decreased. After months of tense negotiations, the majority of civil servant labour unions accepted government's offer of a 1.5% pensionable salary increase with lump sum monthly gratuity at the end of July.

Cosatu said Mboweni's leadership of National Treasury was an obstacle in the advancement of pro-worker economic policies. Numsa, meanwhile, bemoaned what it called a government "driving right-wing austerity measures in the midst of an economic crisis".

Numsa secretary general Irvin Jim expressed the union's disappointment with what he called government's "refusal" to pay public sector workers a 7% increase last year – offering, instead, what he termed a "lousy" 1.5%.

"That is why Numsa views the recent announcement by Mboweni […] claiming that he cares for workers all of a sudden, to access their pensions and provident funds, with suspicion," said Jim.

Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said in a statement following the federation central executive committee meeting this week that a new trend was emerging of employers reneging on signed wage agreements both in the public and the private sector.

"We stand opposed to the attempts to moderate and freeze wages across the sectors of the economy. The CEC has resolved to adopt a combative stance of mass mobilisation to respond to this offensive," said Pamla.

Pamla said Cosatu remained opposed to the wage moderation in the public service and would continue to confront the National Treasury, which he called "the key stumbling block" in the struggle to pursue the progressive policies adopted in the ANC's 2017 national conference at Nasrec.

"We further call for and campaign for the reversal of the relaxation of exchange controls as they expose our currency to international capital flows and speculators," said Pamla.

Regarding the pension withdrawal provision, Cosatu proposed that 30% or R30 000 in retirement savings be accessible to avoid depleting members' funds.

Jim said he would never dismiss the intervention out of hand, but stressed that it must be discussed with care as the life savings of workers were at stake.

Mboweni defended his approach to containing spending in the fiscus, saying he was prepared to be unpopular among unions, but would not allow South Africa to slip into a sovereign debt crisis under his watch.

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