|A march of SA trade unionists.|
South Africa’s looming winter of discontent by Terry Bell
The kleptocratic faction in the South African Government, together with their cronies, have squandered and misappropriated billions of rand. Now they expect public sector workers and the public at large to pay for this mixture of incompetence and larceny.
Public sector unions across the labour spectrum tend to agree about this analysis as they prepare for pay and benefits negotiations that should start next month. They point out, with ample justification, that cost-cutting and other austerity measures are now a government priority. For example, of the 1.3 million designated public sector jobs, at least 10% remain vacant. And promises of improvements in grading, pay and conditions in various sectors have also been put on hold.
One of the horrific consequences of this drive to cut costs resulted in the deaths last year of more than 100 psychiatric patients who were discharged into “community care”. The prime reason given: to save money.
Public health specialist, Professor Leslie London of the University of Cape Town, admits that community care is a preferred option if it is carefully organised and monitored. He also points out that to do this properly “costs money” — and money is what government is trying to save.
This has resulted in ministers continuing to claim that job creation is a priority while supporting the freezing of posts in an attempt to cut costs. Such apparent hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed
“What it means is that fewer workers are available to provide services to the public,” says Ivan Fredericks, general manager of probably the largest public sector union, the 230 000-strong PSA. “Workers are placed under greater stress, the work suffers and so does service to the public.”
This was evident in the recent turmoil in the Home Affairs department where a strike was averted last week with a last-minute — and probably temporary — settlement. Many of the issues remain unresolved and will certainly feature in the upcoming negotiations between unions and government.
The much publicised action of pathology assistants in Gauteng that caused delays in funerals and much agitation among Muslim and Jewish communities will also certainly feature. The action resulted in numbers of distraught families being unable to bury their dead.
Referred to by Gauteng provincial health minister Gwen Ramokgopa as a “work to rule strike”, it was not in any sense a strike. Nor was it the “go slow” that it was subsequently labelled.
All that the assistants did was to stop doing work they are neither trained nor paid for. In other words, they continued to do all the work required according to their contracts of employment.
These workers are not registered with the Health Professions Council (HPCSA), but have, because of a shortage of pathologists, often carried out autopsy work. This, they were aware, could leave them open to prosecution, should something go wrong.
For years they have asked for suitable training and certification, along with the proper rate of pay for the work. “Four months ago, we laid out everything that was required,” says Khaya Xaba, spokesperson for the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union.
According to Xaba, once again, nothing was done: “And we ended up with a tragic situation that never should have happened.”
However, Ramokgopa now maintains that there is a plan to provided training that would also take account of “prior learning”, but that no tertiary institution has so far been prepared to take this on. Other plans were also “in the pipeline”, but there had been a “lack of communication” between government and the workers.
“That is their problem. And what about the SETAs (Skills, Education, Training Authorities) that government established to carry out training?” asks Xaba. In the meantime the unions maintain that government is trying to scapegoat public sector workers for the results their cost-cutting programmes.
This is seen as a tactic aimed at turning pubic sentiment against the workers ahead of the looming negotiations. “But what we have is an arrogant employer that makes the public pay the price,” says PSA assistant general manager, Leon Gilbert.