Labour unions and electricity parastatal Eskom are locked in talks at the the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) with CCMA director, Nerine Kahn, on Friday.

"Eskom, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and Solidarity will be meeting through the weekend in a further attempt to resolve the wage and working conditions dispute," the CCMA said in a statement on Friday.

The CCMA said that last week it had issued a certificate of non-resolution when the talks deadlocked after several conciliation meetings.

Eskom has offered union members an 8.5 percent wage increase across the board and a R1000 housing allowance.

The offer was, however, rejected by all three labour unions.

They are demanding a nine percent wage increase across the board, a R2500 housing allowance and six months' paid maternity leave.

Yesterday Eskom's CEO, Brian Dames, said the power utility could not afford to increase wages by more than the 8,5% it has already offered and pleaded with trade unions not to go on a planned strike next week.

Eskom said a strike would affect power supply, as 75% of its 35000 workforce are essential to its task of generating electricity.

"My plea to all our trade unions is for them and everyone else to put SA first and not to go on strike at this point . or even later . and put SA in the spotlight," he said.

"Eskom has been negotiating in good faith and believes that the offer is fair and reasonable, and it is the maximum that Eskom can afford under the present challenging economic conditions," Mr Dames said.

He said although Eskom's financial performance was improving, there was a need to contain costs and to fund the substantial loans still required to complete its building programme.

"That programme is essential if we are to double our generating capacity in order to power continued economic growth and job creation in SA," he said.

Eskom's human resources director, Bhabhalazi Bulunga, said while the key priority was to resolve the current wage dispute, Eskom was also prepared to conclude a minimum service level agreement with unions to separate essential services from nonessential services. "We need to sit down and decide on who can go on strike and who cannot . as an essential service, Eskom cannot afford to close down because of a strike," he said.

Mr Bulunga has insisted industrial action would be illegal and unprotected as Eskom provides an essential service. He said a high court interdict issued two months ago, which reaffirmed that Eskom was an essential service and that strikes were therefore prohibited, still stood.

"The unions did not contest the court order, therefore it still stands. Police will take over if a court order is violated or an illegal act is performed," he said.

The NUM and Numsa have said that as no minimum service level agreement was signed with Eskom declaring it an essential service, they could go on strike.

Prof Mahamed Rajah, a labour expert and specialist in dispute resolution at the University of SA's Graduate School of Business Leadership, urged all parties involved to agree on a minimum service level agreement.

"That process should be facilitated by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration," he said. With Sapa