Public sector unions present inflation-linked wage demands

Members of Cosatu during a strike protesting the government's plan to trim the public sector wage bill.
Members of Cosatu during a strike protesting the government's plan to trim the public sector wage bill.

South Africa's public sector unions want a general salary rise of consumer inflation plus 4% for all workers, a document they presented to the government showed on Monday, as talks began on a wage deal seen as key to helping the government contain its spiralling debt.

The list of 16 demands, which includes better housing payments and a risk allowance of 12% of basic salary due to the COVID-19 pandemic, comes amid a court fight between the unions representing more than 1 million teachers, nurses and police and the state over salaries.

Public sector unions, including those from the COSATU federation aligned with the governing African National Congress (ANC), have approached South Africa's highest court to try to force National Treasury to pay the final tranche of the preceding three-year wage settlement struck in 2018.

"We make an appeal to government to negotiate with us in good faith and not come there with already made-up positions, because that is going to cause a strike," said Mugwena Maluleke, a senior wage negotiator for COSATU.

Workers received their salary hikes in the first two years, but National Treasury baulked at paying around 37 billion rand for the final year starting in April 2020, saying the final hike was unaffordable amid the economic devastation caused by COVID-19.

Finance minister Tito Mboweni pledged in October to freeze public sector wages for the next three years to help contain a gaping budget deficit weighing on the economy, with civil servants' salaries making up around a third of consolidated state spending.

In December, the Labour Appeals Court ruled in Treasury's favour, but the unions quickly challenged the judgment at the constitutional court, which is yet to hear the matter.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Service and Administration refrained from commenting on the latest wage demands, saying that the negotiations had only just begun.

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