Wednesday, June 13, 2007

South African Labour Update: Conflicting Claims Over Impact of Strike

Conflicting claims over impact of strike

Justine Gerardy
Johannesburg, South Africa
13 June 2007 06:38

Countrywide pay protests by public servants ended peacefully on Wednesday with sharply conflicting claims on the turnout.

One union said 600 000 workers took part in countrywide marches, while the government put the figure at 70 000.

Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) spokesperson Patrick Craven said initial reports suggested Wednesday's events had been "excellent".

Solidarity action from municipal workers and taxi drivers indicated the "depth and support" for the public servants, he said.

The Public Service and Administration Department, however, said the mass action had a "minimal impediment" on most service delivery.

"It is estimated that in all centres across the country 70 000 workers participated in the marches," said spokesperson Lewis Rabkin.

However, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) said reports showed a significant or general public-service shutdown, "despite government's obvious propaganda to the contrary".

"Our overall assessment is that more than 600 000 workers participated in the marches," the union said.

Marches were disciplined and peaceful with one isolated act of violence reported, Nehawu said.

In Pretoria, Cosatu president Willie Madisha vowed that the "war" against government over public servants' wages would continue.

Ministers should resign and go back to their roots to experience workers' problems, he said.

Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi said in Cape Town: "We are not moving back, not one inch. So the government has a choice: Do they see a long, long, winter, or do they want to settle?"

There were 43 marches countrywide in support of the unions' 10% wage hike demand.


The state and unions will meet again in the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council on Friday, after talks scheduled for Thursday were postponed.

Shireen Pardesi, vice-chairperson of the council and the unions' chief negotiator, said unions would hold a leadership meeting and consult with members on Thursday.

She said a full-blown council meeting was now scheduled for Friday at about 10am.

The government on Wednesday accepted a proposal for a 7,25% wage increase for public servants, up from its earlier 6,5% offer.

"Recognising that we are 13 days into industrial action, and further recognising the toll that this is taking on all sectors of society, we ... felt it incumbent upon us to accede to the proposal," said Rabkin.

Analysts say the strike will have a negative impact on South Africa's image.

"The inability of the partners to resolve the strike quickly does play into negative perceptions about South Africa. It's bad for the image of the country to have a protracted public-sector strike," said independent policy analyst Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen.

Hassen said he was surprised by the length of the strike, but that unions were fed up with government's approach.

"A lot of people are willing to sacrifice about half a month's salary for a better deal."

South Africa's image, both internally and externally, was likely to have been undermined by the strike, said South African Chamber of Business consultant Bill Lacey.

"People looked at South Africa at being an unusual situation in that we've reached a pretty harmonious way of resolving differences through consensus. That seems to have been undermined through the strike."

Meanwhile, marchers countrywide sharpened up their slogans.

Posters included: "Geraldine: Most Wanted. If found 12% reward", "57% president; 50% ministers; 20% judges; 6% insult" and "Geraldine. You are the weakest link. KOOBYE."

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) criticised "personal insults" against Fraser-Moleketi.

The minister was implementing government positions that had been taken by government as a collective.

"The ANC strongly condemns any attempts to disrespect the minister, regardless of whatever differences may exist between the government and the public-sector unions."

Cabinet expresses concerns

The South African Cabinet has expressed concern that trade-union leaders are not providing adequate details of the government's wage offer to their members and accused some of seemingly promoting unruly behaviour by striking public servants.

It also warned union leaders against irresponsible utterings amounting to incitement.

Briefing the media after Cabinet's fortnightly meeting on Wednesday, government spokesperson Themba Maseko nevertheless expressed the hope that a settlement in the wage dispute would be reached "sooner rather than later".

The government's wage offer would go a long way to improve the overall package paid to public servants.

"We are concerned that not enough is being done by union leaders to inform their members of the details of the overall package being offered, apart from the basic figure for the basic salary increase," he said.

In addition to the annual increase -- the latest offer being 7,25% -- the offer included an increased housing allowance, increased medical-aid contribution, a 25% adjustment to nightshift, special and danger pay, and full implementation of overtime payment as per the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

The adjustments would amount, for those getting the housing allowance and belonging to the Gems medical-aid scheme, to an 18% increase for the lowest paid worker and about 9,4% for the highest paid public servant.-- Sapa

Workers mount show of force in S.Africa strike

Wed Jun 13, 2007 12:05PM EDT
Strikes in South Africa intensify
By Bate Felix and Muchena Zigomo

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Thousands of South African workers marched on Wednesday in sympathy with striking civil servants in a show of force that highlighted the divide between the ruling African National Congress and its trade union allies.

Downtown Johannesburg came to a standstill as about 15,000 union supporters chanted slogans denouncing President Thabo Mbeki's government, reflecting anger over economic policies that critics say have left South Africa's poor majority behind.

Marchers thronged the streets of other major cities, including Cape Town, media said. Many belonged to the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), allied with the ANC and the South African Communist Party.

Political analysts say the public service strike, which began on June 1, has turned into a demonstration of workers' power ahead of a leadership congress this year that could see the ANC name a successor to Mbeki.

But the deadlock has hit the delivery of essential services, and some South Africans say loved ones have died as a result of problems in hospitals and other key facilities. The strike has caused chaos in hospitals, schools and public offices.

Taxi driver Collen Ramodike said his sister passed away in a Johannesburg hospital on Sunday because no medical staff were there to treat her meningitis. "Even getting a death certificate is a problem because there is nobody at Home Affairs," he said.

Union leaders had promised to shut South Africa down on Wednesday, but turnout was uneven. Activity in Durban, home to the country's largest port, was virtually halted as buses and taxis stopped operating, but South Africa's economic capital Johannesburg was largely unscathed, with public transportation widely available.

The sympathy strike came as Mbeki opens the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, a global meeting of political and business leaders gathered to discuss Africa's prospects.

As protest songs from members of the powerful police and prison workers' union reverberated in the forum conference hall, some analysts said the sight of Africa's largest economy beset by labor problems could prove unnerving.

"The strike continuing is not helping the cause. A country with a labor issue is not good for investment," said Ion de Vleeschauwer, a currency trader at Rennies Bank.

Mbeki is due to step down as president in 2009, and there is speculation the ANC may step away from his market-friendly policies, which COSATU and other critics say have failed to dent economic disparities that linger from the apartheid era.


Mbeki's government said police and army personnel, thousands of whom have been deployed to keep state schools and hospitals open, would respond to any violence or intimidation by strikers.

Workers in essential services, such as police, healthcare and emergency services, are barred from joining the strike, and some COSATU unions, including the influential National Union of Mineworkers, did not join the boycott.

Many did, however, including those representing municipal workers. Mounds of refuse lay in city centers as garbage collectors stayed off the job.

The government confirmed on Wednesday it was accepting a mediator's proposal that it raise its wage increase offer for public servants to 7.25 percent from an original 6.5 percent.

But unions, which collectively represent about 60 percent of the country's nearly 1 million public servants, said they would stick to their demand for a 10 percent increase.

"We are not moving back, not one inch," COSATU General Secretary Vavi Zwelinzima told picketing workers outside parliament in Cape Town. "So, the government has a choice: do they see a long winter or do they want to settle?"

Tony Modise, national spokesman for the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union, warned there could be disruption at police stations and prisons if the government did not meet the workers' wage demands by Friday.

(Additional reporting by Wendell Roelf in Cape Town)
Reuters 2007. All rights reserved.

June 13, 2007

S. African public sector strike intensifies


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) - Tens of thousands of public sector workers marched Wednesday to government offices across the country, escalating a 12-day strike and bringing South Africa's largest cities to a standstill.

The action staged by public sector unions disrupted schooling, health care and transport services. Municipal workers also heeded the call to halt work in a show of solidarity, and a number of other unions took part in lunchtime protests.

With a heavy police presence in all cities, the protests were peaceful and there were no reports of violence as workers rallied for higher wages.

"We are not moving back not one inch," the Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi told several thousand people at a rally outside the gates of parliament in Cape Town, the South African Press Association reported. "So the government has a choice: Do they see a long winter or do they want to settle?"

About one million teachers, nurses and other civil servants have been on strike since June 1, leaving hospitals struggling and prompting the government to call in soldiers and police to protect non-striking workers and other civilians.

The public sector unions rejected the government's latest offer Tuesday to boost salaries by 7.25 per cent, up from an original offer of six per cent. The unions are demanding a 10 per cent increase, down from 12 per cent initially.

Medical workers have joined the public sector strike, even though as "essential workers," they are legally barred from going on strike. The government has said striking medical workers would be fired, and dismissals have been announced at some hospitals.

Unions condemned the firings, and patients have expressed support for the strikers at some hospitals. But there also have been reports of strikers intimidating those who continued to work.

About 30 strikers were arrested Monday, accused of intimidating staff at a hospital in the central city of Bloemfontein. And on the first day of the strike, police fired stun grenades to disperse around 500 protesters who were preventing doctors from entering one of Cape Town's largest hospitals.

Police and prison staff unions also have threatened to join the strike in a show of solidarity.

Fewer commuter trains were reported to be running Wednesday, while security was increased at some hospitals. Many schools were shut for the day.

The governing African National Congress called striking workers to ensure there was calm and "resist those elements that are bent on acts of violence and intimidation."

On Tuesday, President Thabo Mbeki voiced support for a revised salary structure for public sector workers while condemning the intimidation and violence.

"All of us should ask ourselves what kind of society we are building and what moral lessons we are imparting when insults, violence against fellow workers and damage to property become the stock-in-trade during protests of this kind," he said.

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