Labor Union Representing 210,000 South African State Workers Begins Strike

South African government ministers met with public sector workers’ unions to try to end a wage strike by 210,000 teachers, nurses and other state employees and prevent it from spreading.

Public Service and Administration Minister Richard Baloyi, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan spent much of today meeting union members in the capital, Pretoria, Baloyi’s spokesman, Dumisani Nkwamba, said in an interview from the city.

“This political engagement is part of government’s attempts to avert a full-blown strike,” Nkwamba said. Meetings may last “last late into the night,” he said.

Unions representing 1.3 million workers are demanding 8.6 percent pay increases and monthly housing allowances of 1,000 rand ($136), backdated to April 1. On July 22, the government made a final offer to raise wages by 6.5 percent and pay a 750 rand housing allowance.

Public services were “running smoothly” today as members of the Public Servants Association started their strike, Nkwamba said.

“The strike is very well supported,” Manie de Clercq, the union’s deputy general manager, said by telephone from Pretoria earlier today. “The full impact will be difficult to assess. We will probably do that tomorrow.”

Pay Offer Rejected

Other public-sector unions also rejected the government’s pay offer and threatened to go on strike next month unless their demands were met. South African laws prevent strikes by certain categories of workers who provide essential services, such as police officers.

A four-week strike in June 2007 shut most schools and disrupted services at some hospitals, clinics and immigration offices, and led the government to deploy troops to quell violent protests.

About 3,000 PSA members joined a march in Johannesburg today, while protests in the coastal cities of Cape Town and Durban each attracted about 2,000 people, De Clercq said.

Reports received from seven of the country’s nine provinces indicated that schools were operating as normal, Granville Whittle, a spokesman for the Ministry of Basic Education, said by telephone from Pretoria.

Wages Increases

The effect of the strike on border control points and offices that issue identity documents and passports was still being assessed, Ronnie Mamoepa, a spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs, said by telephone from Pretoria.

Health Ministry spokesman Fidel Hadebe did not immediately answer calls to his mobile phone.

In May, state transport company Transnet Ltd. gave its workers an 11 percent wage increase to end an 18-day strike, which crippled exports, while state-owned power utility Eskom Holdings Ltd. this month agreed to a 9 percent raise to avert labor action.

The government, which has seen its wage bill double to 259 billion rand during the past five fiscal years, says it must rein in increases if it’s to improve health, education and other services.

Inflation, which slowed for a sixth consecutive month to 4.2 percent in June, will remain within the central bank’s 3 percent to 6 percent target until the end of 2012, South African Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus told reporters on July 22.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mike Cohen in Cape Town at mcohen21@bloomberg.net; To contact the reporter on this story: Franz Wild in Johannesburg at fwild@bloomberg.net;

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.