CAPE TOWN (Reuters) — South African public sector unions have withdrawn from a wage deal and threatened to strike after the government decided to "unilaterally implement" a lower pay offer, union officials said on Thursday.
The decision by unions could reverse gains made during almost seven months of negotiations, and brought the possibility of a protracted strike a step closer in Africa's most developed economy, which is struggling with sluggish growth.
The government initially signed a 7 per cent wage increase for the first year in a three-year deal, but then said it would only increase salaries by 6.4 per cent, leaving unions bristling.
A legal opinion, due at the end of June, will determine whether the government's interpretation of the deal was correct.
"We have walked away from the agreement and will officially inform the employer tomorrow," said Basil Manuel, chairman of the Independent Labour Caucus, which represents just under half of 1.3 million nurses, teachers and police officers.
"The employer has decided to unilaterally implement this deal," Manuel told Reuters. "The employer has messed us around and reneged on their agreement. They are antagonising unions and striking is an option."
On June 2, the government justified the lower wage, arguing it was owed an "over-adjustment" of 0.6 per cent by the unions.
It said this was the difference between the actual average consumer price index (CPI) of 5.6 per cent for 2014/15 and the projected CPI of 6.2 per cent.
"Legally, unions can't walk away from the agreement," said Brent Simons, spokesman for the Department of Public Service and Administration.
He said the government would abide by a decision arising from the legal opinion handed down after teams for the government and labour leaders put forward their interpretations of the lower wage increase.
The Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council, which will appoint the senior lawyer to hear the arguments, will determine the final ruling, the PSCBC chairman said.
"If the legal opinion, which is due on 29 June, goes against us, we will back-date the pay," Simons told Reuters.