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SAA staff placed on forced leave as airline cancels flights during lockdown

With negotiations between labour unions and SAA business-rescue practitioners put on hold, the airline has told its workers to stay at home during the country’s 21-day lockdown

This follows SAA’s announcement that it would be suspending all domestic flights from Thursday, in line with the three-week shutdown. Last week, the  airline’s business rescue practitioners, Les Matuson and Siviwe Dongwana, suspended all regional and international flights as governments around the world implement travel bans in a bid to combat the spread of Covid-19

In a letter sent to employees on Wednesday, and seen by the Mail & Guardian, workers have been ordered to take forced leave from Thursday, a day before the lockdown. Staff are required to report to work only if contacted by their line managers. 

Only staff deemed critical and essential are exempt from the compulsory leave. 

“In the event where an individual’s current leave balance is insufficient to cover the compulsory leave measures, such leave will be regarded as unpaid leave,” the letter reads. 

The decision by the rescue practitioners to place workers on leave and suspend domestic flights follows heated negotiations between the rescue practitioners and labour unions earlier in the week regarding the airline’s retrenchment process. 

The rescue practitioners last week wrote to unions requesting that the retrenchment  process be fast-tracked, as the airline’s funds could run out by March 31. At the time of issuance of the Section 189 notice, the airline had anticipated that it would still be generating significant revenue from ticket sales. These projections have now been adjusted as a result of the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Last week, unions and the rescue practitioners were meant to begin consultations on the Section 189 notices that were issued to workers earlier this month. This was, however, postponed to this week, after the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration suspended its operations in line with the declaration of a national disaster by President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

Leaked voice note

In a leaked WhatsApp voice note, South African Cabin Crew Association (Sacca) spokesperson Zazi Nsibanyoni-Mugambi can be heard telling union members that this week’s consultations were conducted through video conferencing. 

During the consultation, unions questioned the legality of the Section 189 process in the absence of a published business-rescue plan, in line with the Companies Act. The plan is scheduled to be published on March 31, but the rescue practitioners have requested an extension. 

Nsibanyoni-Mugambi said the danger in allowing the retrenchment process to continue before the release of a business plan is that “people can leave and SAA could still not exist”. 

“Labour is not the biggest cost driver that is bringing SAA to its knees. It’s things like fuel and leases and maintenance … even if they got rid of all employees today, SAA would still not survive in one or two months,” she said. 

In correspondence to unions earlier this month, the airline’s rescue practitioners said that all 4 708 employees will be affected by potential job losses and that 2 268 employees will face the axe when the restructuring process is complete. This number excludes employees from SAA subsidiaries Mango, SAA Technical and Airchefs.

If these retrenchments are not concluded before the end of March, the rescue practitioners warned that the airline could face liquidation. 

In the voicenote, Nsibanyoni-Mugambi can be heard telling members that the unions have rejected the rescue practitioners’ proposals to expedite the retrenchment plans because “people will leave” under conditions of intimidation and fear. 

“The business-rescue practitioners to continually threaten us with liquidation is basically putting fear … but it does not mean as unions we must throw you guys [employees] out with the bathwater and not make SAA survive [in the ] long term,” she said. 

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Thando Maeko
Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian

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