Public sector dispute raises need for new approach to development and service delivery

The Social Justice organisations listed below support the right of public sector workers to take industrial action to enforce their demand for a reasonable salary increase and other demands related to their conditions of employment. Quality service delivery depends on a fairly remunerated, motivated and accountable public service.

We support the demand for a reasonable housing allowance that will make it possible for public servants to qualify for bonds and thereby reduce the competition for RDP housing, increasing access to housing for the unemployed and poorest in our society.

However we are well aware that a strike will be costly to our economy and society. It will disrupt services, seriously undermine education and health services and cause more demoralisation and polarisation in our communities. We therefore call on government to meet the union’s final demands so as to avoid strike action.

We also call for an urgent and final agreement on the minimum level of services that must be provided by essential service workers. It is a violation of the right to fair labour practices to impose a total ban on strike action for such workers, which is effectively the case in the absence of such an agreement.

The constitutional duty to sufficiently resource the public service

We believe the wage dispute raises deeper issues which, if properly taken into account by the government – and particularly the Treasury — in policy making, implementation and budgetary allocations, should prevent this type of conflict from arising.

The Constitution is our supreme law. It states that it binds the legislature, the executive and all organs of state. The state is instructed to promote and fulfil the rights it contains.

Many, if not all, of the rights in our Bill of Rights depend upon an efficient, properly staffed and well motivated public service. For example, the rights to freedom and security of the person require a motivated and efficient police force. But, in particular, it will be impossible to follow the Constitution’s instruction to ‘progressively realise’ rights to housing, health and education without an efficient public service.

The Constitution says the state must realise these rights ‘within its available resources’.

The question which is not being honestly answered is what resources are available? Meeting the worker’s demands would require the government to find significantly more money, possibly up to two billion rand. The government says it cannot afford this. But why is it that billions of Rand were made available for the World Cup because it was considered politically important, but are not for the staffing of basic services? Why are hundreds of millions of Rand available for expensive cars and perks for Ministers and senior members of government, but not for teachers or nurses salaries and basic rights to housing and health?

A Plan for a Public Service that Meets Needs of Workers and Communities

As far back as 2001, the Constitutional Court has ruled that the law requires that in order to comply with its duties towards socio-economic rights government must have a plan capable of their realisation. No plan is capable of realisation without sufficient human resources. In our country human resources are available in abundance, but they are either unemployed or underpaid. Under-paying and under-staffing our public service undermines the Constitution.

This must change.

Unity between unions and social justice organisations to fight for dignity and human rights

These questions demonstrate the need for civil society, and social justice organisations in particular, to demand a meaningful engagement with the government during the budgetary process and to interrogate executive decisions against the yardstick of whether — or not — they will help to achieve the Constitution’s promises to our people.

Finally, we call on COSATU to work more closely with civil society to assist with and provide oversight of delivery, ensure accountability and honesty within the public service. Poor service and contempt for the poor by some civil servants undermines the dignity and reputation of all civil servants.

Endorsed by: AIDC, Centre for Health Policy and Innovation, Community Media Trust, Equal Education, Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, Rural Doctors Association (RUDASA), SECTION27, Treatment Action Campaign.

For further comment contact: Mark Heywood – 083 634 88806