THE final wage offer on the table for public servants remains 6,5% with an additional 2,5% for benefits, exceeding the government's budget for this year by more than R8bn.

Newly appointed Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said on Tuesday at a media briefing that despite the public image created of her being a union basher, she is sensitive to the needs of labour, but these had to be balanced with the needs of the people.

The proposed increase of 9% amounts to an increase of R30bn in the wage bill and is R8bn more than what the Treasury budgeted for. Ms Sisulu told the National Press Club the current wage bill was unsustainable. "We cannot continue with a wage bill that we cannot afford."

The wage bill has risen over the years to represent 38% of the government's consolidated noninterest expenses. An unrealistic settlement would affect policies aimed at helping the poor, Ms Sisulu said.

She insisted on a multiyear agreement and would craft a service charter that would measure these increases with performance, productivity and professionalism in the public service.

The biggest stumbling block in the way of service delivery was the public service, she said.

She did not want to be drawn on her reaction if the negotiations failed, saying she was certain the government and labour would find as solution. The country, she said, could not afford a strike. Ms Sisulu said it would be in the interest of the unions if they did find an amicable solution.

National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) spokesman Sizwe Pamla said last week that he wanted Ms Sisulu to resolve worker grievances quickly.

"Our union is keen to work with Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Many issues around wages, benefits, filling jobs and so on, must be discussed."

However, he said, Nehawu was troubled by her history of "intolerance" in dealing with workers, as her relationship with defence unions showed.

With Alistair Anderson