UPDATE 1-Unions challenge South Africa's Telkom in court over redundancy offers

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JOHANNESBURG, Feb 26 (Reuters) - South African unions on Wednesday argued in court that telecoms provider Telkom had failed to properly consult on the terms of voluntary redundancy and early retirement packages offered to workers as it looks to cut thousands of jobs.

According to court papers seen by Reuters, the South African Communication Union (SACU) and the Communication Workers Union (CWU) had filed an urgent application demanding that Telkom withdraw a notice in which it opened applications for voluntary severance packages (VSP) and voluntary early retirement packages (VERP).

The company told unions in January it could cut up to 3,000 of its more than 15,000 staff as it struggles with declining performance in fixed voice and fixed data services.

The unions, representing about 57% of Telkom’s workers, are arguing that Telkom has not “meaningfully” engaged with them on the details of these packages and the new structure of the firm after the job cuts, and that a selection criteria has not been agreed upon for those facing possible cuts.

“Telkom’s employees are being asked to sacrifice their employment in the face of a threatened retrenchment which may not affect them,” the unions said in an affidavit filed last Wednesday with a labour court and seen by Reuters.

Consultation between Telkom and both unions reached a deadlock on Feb.12 as a result of disagreement over the details of the packages.

On Wednesday the labour court heard the unions’ plea for the court to order Telkom to engage in further consultations with all unions regarding the contents of the proposed voluntary packages, who shall qualify and what the retrenchment package would be should job cuts be unavoidable.

Telkom argued in its opposing affidavit that the unions have unreasonably refused to discuss the packages and that in the last 10 years, Telkom has offered these packages at the beginning of the consultation process not at the end, as unions requested.

“This is not a dispute where Telkom refuses to consult. It is about when, during the consultation timetable, Telkom may table voluntary packages for discussions,” Telkom said.

Telkom said the majority of the 1,585 workers who had already applied for the packages were above the age of 55 and qualified for early retirement. It added that a majority of those who had applied were also members of the two unions.

“To be clear, the alliance (CWU & SACU) is not opposed to the idea of the VSP or VERP being offered to Telkom’s employees. Rather it wants to consult on the terms of the VSP and VERP’s in order to obtain the most beneficial offer,” the unions said.

Reporting by Nqobile Dludla; Editing by Emma Rumney, Kirsten Donovan