Finance minister Tito Mboweni insisted on Thursday that the government has held “a multipronged conversation” with trade unions to lay the groundwork for a three-year wage freeze on which the entire budget rests.
Mboweni was briefing MPs at parliament in a joint committee meeting of finance and appropriations from the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces.
“There has been a multipronged conversation in the political alliance of ANC, SACP and Cosatu with myself and Senzo Mchunu, minister of public service & administration; there have been conversations at Nedlac and now the minister (Mchunu) has formally submitted a proposal to the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council. This is not a surprise to anyone,” he said.
But public sector unions and union federation Cosatu said that no interactions on the wage freeze had taken place, other than a brief mention of this by Mboweni at Nedlac, in the week preceding the medium-term budget policy statement.
Mugwena Maluleke, the general secretary of the SA Democratic Teachers Union and head of the joint management committee of Cosatu public sector unions said: “There has not been any discussion, not at a political level and not at the bargaining council.”
Maluleke said unions had renewed their request to meet President Cyril Ramaphosa, made in August when rumours of the freeze began to circulate.
“We wanted to put it on the agenda to find out if the rumours were true and now we know it is a reality,” he said.
The National Education and Health Workers Union met Mchunu in September to discuss defective personal protective equipment and work safety. A detailed statement was released by Mchunu’s office after the meeting. Spokesperson Kamogelo Mogotsi said on Thursday that the matters mentioned in the statement were discussed at the meeting.
The Public Servants Association, a union affiliated to Fedusa, had not met anyone from government since “before the lockdown”, said spokesperson Reuben Maleka.
Cosatu parliamentary officer Matthew Parks said there had been no political meetings in the alliance on the wage freeze and there have been no engagements with government.
“Government has refused meetings, citing the court case,” said Parks.
The government and public sector unions are in litigation at the Labour Appeal Court after the government reneged on the third year of a wage agreement which would have awarded employees a CPI plus increase. The government has made a counter-application saying it cannot afford to pay the increase.
While Mboweni said a proposal had now been made to the bargaining council, Maluleka said the council had been suspended after the government counter application.
Parks said that the occasion on which the wage freeze was referenced was when Mboweni presented the budget to Nedlac a week before the tabling. There was no discussion as unions argue that Nedlac is not the right forum for engagements on wages.
In responding to MPs on Thursday, Mboweni emphasised that there was no room for change of the fiscal framework. “We cannot break the fiscal framework,” he said.
MPs raised concerns over labour’s likely opposition to the planned R310.6bn cut in the public sector wage bill over four years which Mboweni said would have to be approached “strategically”.
While the government needed to avoid a public servants’ strike at all costs it could not break the fiscal framework “otherwise we will be on a slippery road and we are all going to regret it because there will be nothing for us. Look at what happened in Greece, look at what is happening in Argentina, in Ecuador and so on. We don’t want to be in their situation”, he said. /With Linda Ensor
BY Carol Paton