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South African bishops call for speedy resolution in labor strike

.- The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) is calling for the public servants strike in the country to be carried out in lawful manner and for both parties to return to the negotiating table to find a speedy solution.

In a press release this week, the bishops expressed concern about the deteriorating situation of the labor strike, which began June 1.

“Our constitution upholds the democratic right to strike, but only as a last resort, when all avenues of negotiation have been exhausted,” wrote SACBC president Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg. “The fact that there were eight months of negotiation before the strike began in June 1 begs the question whether these negotiations were done in good faith.

“Public servants are a vital element in the running of any state and should be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” he continued. “In this regard, the debate around large salary increases at the level of Parliament and the Executive and refusing to pay a just salary at other levels of the state does pose a serious moral problem.”

The bishops said they were concerned about the increasing levels of intimidation being reported daily in schools and hospitals. According to the New York Times, public schools have been shut since the strike began, and some private schools began closing this week as strikers threatened to picket them.

The government has fired thousands of striking nurses, arguing that they violated a constitutional ban on strikes by essential workers, and has deployed army medical workers in public hospitals, reported the Times.

“Preventing children going to school and abandoning sick patients can never be condoned,” the bishops’ press release reads. “Those bent on harassing and intimidating non-strikers should desist from their bullying tactics.

“The right to strike should not endanger lives, particularly in our hospitals where an adequate staff must be present at all times. Unions, while rightfully pressing for a just salary, cannot ignore the right of others to life,” the bishops insisted.

Violence has been limited and Patrick Craven, a union spokesman, told the Times that “the unions are absolutely committed to keeping this strike peaceful, legal and disciplined.”

The strike was called by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), an amalgam of 1.8 million workers, mostly employed by national, provincial or local governments. The unions had demanded a 12 percent salary increase and other benefits, but lowered their wage demand to a 10 percent increase.

During the talks, the government raised its initial offer of a 6 percent increase to 6.5 percent, although it was expected to make a new offer when negotiations resumed late Wednesday.

The walkout, which the union says includes 700,000 of its members, has been confined largely to teachers, hospital workers and some government functionaries like court orderlies and stenographers.

Currently, a beginning teacher earns about $700 a month, and nurses may earn as little as $500. At the same time, food costs are rising 8.6 percent a year.

President Thabo Mbeki’s government has shown little sign of a move toward a settlement during the negotiation process.

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