SAA strike is a lose-lose situation




The standoff between management and labour at Airways Park, the headquarters of SAA, has reached crisis level after the airline announced it was cancelling most of its flights from today into the weekend.

According to the airline’s spokesperson, Tlali Tlali, only five regional flights — from Lusaka, Accra, Harare, Windhoek, and Maputo, will land at OR Tambo today — while SAA flights from Frankfurt, New York, Munich, Hong Kong, Perth and London will land in the evening.

For the rest, Tlali said: “Unless alternative arrangements are in place, customers are requested not to go to their departure airports during this disruption as SAA will be unable to provide any assistance. Information on the status of our flights will be regularly updated on our website.”

The announcement was unprecedented, and signals that the airline was unable to do better than the 5.9% increase offered to unions on Wednesday night. This offer was rejected by all unions, including the National Transport Movement (NTM), which was asking for 5.9% because the airline proposed to implement the increase only from April 2020.

The offer document tabled by the airline’s head of employee relations, Lourens Erasmus, on Wednesday, proposes SAA will backdate pay from April 2019 to September 2019, to be paid next April; and backdate pay from October 2019 to March 2020 to be paid in October next year.

The NTM is seeking a 5.9% increase, to be backdated to January 2019, while the South African Cabin Crew Association (Sacca) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) are seeking an 8% increase.

Although there is no question that a strike right now would be devastating for the airline, it is not clear whether both management and labour appreciate that nobody wins should it take place.

This impasse will only be stopped by them coming back to the table —and nothing else.

The real question is how much further than the projected R9-billion loss SAA interim chair Thandeka Mgoduso will allow SAA to sink before caving in if R50-million a day is the cost. For labour, the same questions exists.

The reality is, pulling the plug — as most taxpayers suggest — on SAA will not be as easy and will cost the government heavily in the R15-billion debt covered by state guarantees. The airline will also be immediately responsible for billions more to return aircraft to lessors, as well as payments to suppliers and the rest of SAA’s debt that is not guaranteed by the government.

Democratic Alliance MP Alf Lees, who was part of the standing committee on public accounts team that met SAA in Parliament on Wednesday, said SAA board member Martin Kingston told them that it would cost in the region of R40-billion to wind SAA down.

Lees believes that even this number is a thumbsuck, and laments the fact that there simply are no credible numbers out there, as SAA’s financials are outstanding for two years running now.

“I wish we could change how oversight is done. They come in there and get hours to present and at best MPs get five minutes trying to get information out of them,” he said.

By Thursday morning, both parties had not found each other and unions were still on track for “the mother of all strikes”.

Ordinarily, a jump from a 0% increase to 5.9% by a company in the sort of trouble SAA is in, would be lunged at by unions. Their refusal to budge speaks to an acrimony that has gone beyond a wage dispute.

The language used by labour, especially Numsa, in their public statements on the impasse contains more calls to get rid of SAA’s board than it does about working conditions. It is the posture of angry enemies rather than colleagues on different sides of a picket line.

But the situation has been building as unions have threatened strike action more than three times this year alone.

One of the factors that led to the workers’ anger was learning that pilots had already been paid 5.9% increase in October, backdated to January. SAA’s management would have you quickly gloss over this because they claim that they were forced by arbitration to implement a multiyear agreement with pilots that they tried to get out of.

But what the top brass miss is the fact that, for the rest of the workers, this speaks to elitism within SAA’s ranks that allowed pilots to enter into multiyear negotiations when other workers could not.

The airline’s management has reiterated that the strike endangers the future of the airline and threatens more jobs than the 944 management proposes to cut in a bid to save the airline. “We have made repeated overtures to the unions to acknowledge the severity of the situation in which we find ourselves and to work hand in hand with us to try and avert a worsening situation,” said acting chief executive Zuks Ramasia on Wednesday afternoon.

“The strike is going to exacerbate rather than ameliorate our problem, and will result in a set of circumstances from which there may well be no recovery,” she added.

Her statements were in reaction to a notice issued by Sacca and Numsa of their intention to embark on a strike from Friday. The Mail & Guardian understands that the NTM members also voted to go on strike on Wednesday.

The airline has said the strike will cause it to suffer losses of about R52-million a day from 102 domestic and international flights in and out of the OR Tambo International Airport.

The disgruntled unions say management’s recently implemented increase for pilots has added about R100-million to the ailing national carrier’s R6.1-billion wage bill, and that their rejected demands would have only added just less than R60-million.

To make matters worse, they add, savings from the last retrenchment process, in 2015, which saw more than 1 000 workers lose their jobs, have been brought back on to SAA’s books through numerous hires in senior management undertaken during the time of former chief executive Vuyani Jarana.

In a letter to staff announcing the start of the retrenchment process on Monday, SAA said only 5 149 workers — those who work for SAA directly and not subsidiaries such as Air Chefs, SAA Technical, and Mango — are affected. In total, the airline employs about 10 000 people.

Sacca and Numsa criticised the announcement, saying Ramasia had not consulted labour in line with section 189 of the Labour Relations Act.

Section 189 of the Labour Relations Act sets out the process to be followed when embarking on possible retrenchments. This involves a consultation with labour.

“We can state categorically, for the record, that no such consultation process ever took place. We were informed through a media statement of their intentions. We have been engaging with SAA management on wage talks and the last meeting took place yesterday,” said the statement.

To further make their case, the two unions have emphasised that just last week the airline’s management informed them that its organisation redesign, which will inform ultimate restructuring, was still incomplete.

“So we are asking ourselves on what basis are they serving us with section 189 to restructure, when they have not completed the work to redesign the organisation? What will the restructuring be based on if they have not yet completed that process? They cannot embark on section 189 without having [done so].

“Their intention is also to run away from holding senior executive management and board members to account for corruption and theft at the airline,” Sacca and Numsa said in a joint statement earlier this week.

Late on Thursday afternoon SAA and unions were still locked in discussion about the airline’s latest offer: a 5.9% increase effective from November 1, as well as backdated pay that would be paid at the end of March next year.

An actual Black Friday deal

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Sabelo Skiti

Sabelo Skiti is an investigative journalist.

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