Thousands of employees at the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) embarked on a strike on Wednesday, threatening the distribution of social grants to millions of beneficiaries.
The National Education Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) says it plans to meet with Social Development Minister Susan Shabangu on Wednesday afternoon in an effort to break the deadlock, but News24 was unable to immediately confirm with Shabangu's office whether the meeting had been scheduled. It is not clear whether Shabangu will be available as she is attending a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
Nehawu members have a number of complaints, but central to their grievances is the biometric enrolment of beneficiaries, which Sassa employees say is a new function that they should be paid extra for. Sassa says the function is not new, and says it is disappointed in Nehawu's decision to strike.
Many beneficiaries have not been paid their grants or have not been transitioned onto the new system run by the South African Post Office (SAPO), Nehawu says. SAPO and Sassa took over the distribution of grants after a lengthy Constitutional Court battle, during which the contract with Cash Paymaster Services was declared invalid.
Nehawu said in a statement: "Biometric enrolment is not part of the job description of workers, hence workers don't get remunerated for performing it, nor is it part of the Sassa grant administration business process. In rural areas there is a huge shortage of the biometric enrolment equipment leading to delays in the servicing of beneficiaries. The system does not cater for workers living with disabilities because the system requires a worker who has full physical ability to successfully perform the function in assisting the beneficiary. It also allows more than one person to login using the same user identity and user credentials leading to fraudulent activities."
Because of glitches in the system, workers have been told to bypass the biometric enrolment requirement, Nehawu says.
Meeting with Shabangu to determine next step - union
In August DA spokesperson on social development Bridget Masango said Sassa was not capturing biometric data and was exposing itself and beneficiaries to potential fraud. While Sassa employees and the agency were in talks over payment for this additional duty, on August 21 Sassa issued a memo to its employees telling them to bypass the biometric system, said Masango.
Sassa's Paseka Letsatsi says that employees were provided with training to work on the new system, and that biometric enrolment is not a new function. All that has changed, he says, is that while in the past beneficiaries were registered with ink and a pad, this was now being done digitally.
In a report to the Constitutional Court in July 2017, Sassa said it had indicated that it would take over the biometric registering of grant beneficiaries, and this was communicated to unions.
Acting Sassa CEO Abraham Mahlangu said: "It is unfortunate that Nehawu should be resorting to a strike action because Sassa has been in talks with Nehawu regarding its grievances relating to the level of training on biometric enrolment provided to staff. Sassa went to [the] extent of rescinding all disciplinary processes against employees who refuse to perform the biometric function pending engagements with Nehawu."
Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha told News24 on Wednesday that the union's meeting with Shabangu would determine whether the shutdown would continue.
If an agreement cannot be reached, Saphetha said the distribution of grants would be affected by the industrial action and the strike would go on "indefinitely".