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SAA unions head to court to stop job losses

South African Airways
South African Airways

Unions at SAA have approached the labour court for an urgent application to stop business rescue practitioners from retrenching staff at the ailing airline, until they have complied with the Labour Relations Act.

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and the SA Cabin Crew Association (Sacca) said the application was expected to be heard on Thursday.

SAA business rescue practitioners (BRP) announced last week that the airline would cancel all domestic flights, except for a reduced service to Cape Town, as well as some international and regional flights, at the end of February in a bid to further cut costs.

This came after the practitioners told employees that they intend to expedite retrenchments at the airline.

In reaction to this, unions said the business rescue practitioners were unable to provide any rational basis for the cancellation of routes, and that the decision would have a devastating effect on employees and their families.

The government objected to their plans to cancel routes. The public enterprises department on Friday signalled that it may attempt to force the business rescue practitioners to reverse their decision as the move would cause market and customer uncertainty, which may jeopardise the long-term future of the airline.

In 2019, SAA entered business rescue, a form of bankruptcy protection aimed at rehabilitating a financially distressed company, after several years of operational losses and government bailouts that have exposed SA fiscal constraints.

Numsa and Sacca on Tuesday said they were seeking an order from the labour court that the business rescue practitioners must be directed to comply with the terms of the wage agreement that was signed on November 25, which stipulated that workers facing retrenchment must be placed on the training layoff scheme.

The scheme provided that workers facing retrenchment would be placed on training for a minimum of six months to a year with 75% of their salaries being paid by the sector education and training authority (Seta).

“The BRPs, together with the SAA management, have deliberately ignored this option and instead are pushing for mass retrenchments through the cancellation of routes,” the unions said.

“As unions, we disagree vehemently with the BRPs for their decision to kill SAA by disproportionately reducing routes.”

The unions also expressed concern with statements made by ANC chair and energy minister Gwede Mantashe at the weekend.

Sunday Times reported that Mantashe, speaking at an ANC birthday rally in Komga in the Eastern Cape, said SAA was an “elitist” airline that did not serve the interests of the working class and should be sold to private buyers if it is unable to generate a profit.

“Whilst his [Mantashe’s] frustration with SAA and its loss-making history might be justified, he should also be aware that it is the ANC and government who appoints ministers, boards and executives to SAA, all of whom have brought SAA into its current state,” Numsa and Sacca said. 

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