Striking South African workers are returning to the negotiating table

South African workers, who launched a three-week strike over wage disputes with the government, are set to resume talks with the government Monday.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
State workers seeking higher wages take part in a strike in Johannesburg September 2, 2010. Striking South African state workers staged a protest march after rejecting a revised wage offer aimed at ending their three-week strike that has the government and the labour movement at loggerheads .

Weeks after wage negotiations were shelved, South African public sector unions who helped to bring the country to a 21-day standstill last month will reconvene talks with the government next Monday on whether to accept the government’s latest wage offers.

Public sector unions under the Congress of South African Trades Union (COSATU) are demanding an 8.6 percent wage increase and monthly housing allowance of R1 000 (about $170) while the government insists on a 7.5 percent wage hike and R800 (about $110) monthly housing allowance. Both offers are technically more than the government has to offer, and will require the government to either raise taxes or take on more debt.

Starting Aug. 18, the unions embarked on a crippling 21-day strike with nurses, teachers, immigration officers, Home Affairs and clerks, shutting down hospitals, schools, passport offices, and generally bringing public services to a standstill. Court injunctions prevented police unions from joining the strike.

Besides creating emergency situations in public hospitals – where volunteers risked physical assault from union members to care for and feed the thousands of patients, including recently born infants – the public service strikes also took some of the shine off of South Africa’s global image after this year’s successful World Cup. But just a year before the ruling African National Congress holds its next elections for leadership positions, this was seen as the labor movement’s best chance of pushing the issues of working class South Africans to the top of the ANC’s agenda.

The militant SA Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) will neither confirm nor deny whether it had accepted the government offer, saying the way forward would only become clear after the meeting on Monday.

"All I can say is that we are resuming the talks on 4th October (Monday,)” SADTU spokeswoman Nomusa Cembi says in an interview. “What will happen then… we don't know."

Another militant union representing South African nurses, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU), say they will not accept the 7.5 percent wage increase and R800 (about $110) monthly allowance.

"Our members from around the country are of the opinion that the R800 (about $110) monthly housing allowance and 7.5 percent wage increase are not enough to cover their needs," says NEHAWU spokesman Sizwe Pamla.

Two other public sector unions, however, representing immigration workers, Home Affairs and government clerks, said they would not join the strike if other unions decide to go it alone.

Independent Labour Caucus (ILC) and Public Service Association (PSA) said they would not embark on another strike following the crippling industrial action which saw government lose more than R20 billion (about $2.6 billion).

ILC Chairman, Chris Klopper, says his union expects other public sector unions under the umbrella Congress of South African Trades Unions (Cosatu) to share the same views when they meet on Monday.

Government spokesman, Dumisani Nkwamba, would say only that the wage negotiations would determine the course of action to be implemented.

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