THE South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) has accused the government of opportunistically using the COVID-19 pandemic for failing to honour a 2018 agreement to increase public sector wages.
SADTU, the country’s biggest teachers’ union, said on Monday that it is confident that the Labour Appeal Court will rule in favour of the workers.
This comes after Judge President of the Labour Court, Justice Basheer Waglay, ruled on Friday in favour of an application by the unions for the matter to be heard directly at the Labour Appeal Court to expedite its resolution.
SADTU’s General Secretary Mugwena Maluleke said the unions were confident that they would emerge victorious, accusing the government of “spewing out flimsy excuses for reneging on the agreement”.
“In the first two financial years, the government had no qualms with the agreement. But shockingly, in the third year, the government has described it as unlawful, unaffordable and against public policy,” said Maluleke.
“The government is citing other priorities such as poverty and social grants for not complying with the collective agreement, as if such socio-economic problems had not existed beforehand. The government is plucking excuses out of the air and cluttering the process with breath-taking falsehoods.”
The unions have been locked in a four-month legal battle over the government’s refusal to implement the third leg of the wage agreement it had signed in January 2018 after enforcing the terms of the deal during the first two years without argument.
In papers filed in the Labour Court, SADTU and the other unions argued that the government should not be permitted to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic in an opportunistic manner to avoid its legal obligations set out in an agreement it had freely and deliberately undertaken to respect.
The unions said if this were to be allowed, it would strike at the heart of the principles of collective bargaining and industrial peace protected by the Constitution and the Labour Relations Act.
The unions also rejected claims by the National Treasury that the public wage increases were unaffordable, saying the Cabinet was aware of the economic conditions when it concluded the agreement.
They also rejected the claim from the government that it was coerced into the agreement, saying it was “staggeringly shocking to suggest that cabinet made an unconstitutional offer because it was threatened by trade unions”.
Senzo Mchunu, Minister of Public Service and Administration, has said that the government did not have the necessary funds to honour the wage agreement.
The government has rejected the public-sector unions’ claim that it was using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to refuse to grant the wage increases.
Instead, it has blamed the unions for turning down cost-cutting proposals to make the increases affordable.
Following Judge Waglay’s decision on Friday, the unions were informed that the matter will be heard in the Labour Appeal Court on 2 December.
In a letter to the unions, the Labour Court registrar writes: “Although the Judge President is of the view that this is not the sort of matter which should forgo a hearing by the Labour Court, he has decided, for a number of reasons, to have the matter ventilated in the Labour Appeal Court, as a court of first instance.”
“To make matters worse, the government is trying to criminalise the legitimate collective agreement that it willingly signed. It seeks to exploit the adverse economic situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. That is a blatant cynical attempt to hide behind this worldwide tragedy,” said Maluleke.
(COMPILED BY INSIDE EDUCATION STAFF)