Striking Public Sector – Solving the Problem

A few weeks ago in response to an article on strikes, one of the posts below the article asked whether I would write a follow up article on the steps currently taken by government to address the strike and what measures, in my opinion, should be taken. I need to preface my response by saying that this article just enumerates a few of the issues and a solution to the issue, it is by no means an exhaustive examination!

I am not suggesting that we do away with striking. Striking is a legitimate avenue for expressing workers grievances but it should be remembered that striking should also be a last resort and should not be used lightly. However, as a country we lose many working days to strikes, in fact more than most other countries, and it is worth noting that the rest of the ‘strike-loving’ nations are first world so really not in a similar situation to South Africa at all. So how do we sort out the problem.

Acknowledge Government’s Role – Good and Bad
Starting with what the government does, and did during the recent strike season. I applaud the government on taking remedial action by getting the armed forces to step into the void created by striking nurses and policemen. This saved a number of lives in hospitals deserted by striking nurses, and showed a willingness to act and to provide the essential services we require of government, when faced with an emergency situation.

The government has also made some mistakes, they gave in to the strikers’ demands at a time when those demands are unreasonable given the government and world financial situation. We should also consider that running up to the strikes there is a history of mismanagement and poor working conditions in the public services and to be fair our public sector workers do not earn especially well. Also consider that government had recently awarded an 8% raise to transport and electricity workers which may explain the public sector demands.

We Still Have a Problem
Bearing all of the above in mind however, the fact remains that the populace in general are rather dissatisfied with the levels of service we receive from our public servants, consider the generally poor performance by public healthcare and education sectors. COSATU says to get better service, we should pay more…but this is a ‘chicken or egg’ situation.I don’t think the poor performance of the public sector is solely the fault of the employees in the sector but they must carry some of the responsibility. Anybody who has visited a public hospital or home affairs knows what I’m talking about.

Pay for Performance Approach
So how do we improve public service. Where there are scarce public resources we need a more marketlike approach to pay in the public sector. My suggestion – a pay for performance model, I understand the difficulties in determining performance in a classroom or hospital ward but its not impossible…. instead of the unions encouraging members to take to the streets the unions should, in consultation with government decide fair performance criteria specific to their professions. Those who perform well should get raises while those surely individuals that lounge around at their desks and provide bad service should get warnings rather than raises. This is the way it works in the more effecient private sector, and this will provide an incentive for public servants to provide better service. Increases should be earned not expected as a matter of course. As an added bonus, you can assume the public would be more willing to pay higher taxes for a better functioning system which in the end means better salaries for public servants!

We’re not the only country where the public sector finances are under pressure but in a world where public sector jobs are generally considered pretty ‘cushy’ perhaps we can come up with a novel solution which could also prove effective elsewhere. The fact remains that the current situation is toxic so something needs to be done or we can expect the strikes to continue…