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'We eat pap and cabbage': Air Chefs staff crippled financially by pandemic

It's been an emotionally and financially draining few months for employees at Air Chefs. File photo.
It's been an emotionally and financially draining few months for employees at Air Chefs. File photo.

Crippled by debt, surviving on pap and selling valuables to buy school stationery.

This is the bleak reality for many employees of SAA subsidiary Air Chefs - which provides in-flight catering services to airlines - who have gone without normal salaries since March 2020.

Brian* has worked there for the past 15 years. He said the company was hit hard when the nationwide lockdown was imposed and only a handful employees worked during repatriation flights. This was also the last time he received his full salary of R11,800. Since then, he has relied on the temporary employee relief scheme (Ters).

He said the last time he received a Ters payment - of R3,500 - was in October.

“Since October until today, I had no income, nothing. It is painful because most of us are paying rent and for cars. With the Ters money that we got I couldn’t even pay my rent of R4,000 or buy food and look after my family.

“For the past four months I have been sitting at home without a cent. If I die today, who will bury me, because all the policies I had with Avbob have lapsed due to non-payment.”

And then there is the pressure to pay outstanding amounts on the house bond.

“I am stressed and every day I have a headache because I don’t know what to do. It is painful to see other children going to school and yours must sit at home. My kids were crying at home because they want to go back to school, but there is no money. What can I do?”

A neighbour eventually lent him R2,000 to buy stationery so his children could go back to school.

“My kids could go back to school yesterday only because of the money my neighbour lent me. I don’t even know if he wants it back because how will I repay him?”

His brother contributed R500 and he was able to buy chicken and mealie meal. “We eat the same food every day,” he said.

'Even my fridge is empty'

Another employee told TimesLIVE that he had worked for the company for 18 years. Since losing his salary of just over R14,000 he was running behind on payments for school fees and rent.

The 48-year-old said he owed more than R17,000 in school fees for his two children.

“I have received letters from the lawyers to say I must pay, but I managed to send them an e-mail and explained to the school that I am working for Air Chefs and we haven’t gotten paid.”

He owes more than R11,000 in rental. “Luckily my landlord understands because before I was paying him on time.”

In desperation to put food on the table, he applied for a cash loan of R900 against his laptop at Cash Converters. The deadline to make payment or give up his laptop was on Sunday. "I went to them on Monday and begged them to please give me a chance for at least one month to make a payment.

“Today if I don’t go there and pay R300 for an extension, I am going to lose my laptop. I don’t have a cent to my name and all my savings are depleted. Even my fridge is empty. If I buy a loaf of bread, I have one slice because my kids must eat.  

“I cooked some cabbage and pap for my kids to eat when they come home from school. My kids were not living like this before, but at least they understand the situation.”

Air Chefs 'waiting to apply' for Ters: SAA

SAA spokesperson Vimla Maistry confirmed that employees had not received salaries since April.

“With the president’s announcement that the Ters Covid relief scheme has been extended, Air Chefs is awaiting the formal gazette to apply ... as one of the industries that qualifies.

“In addition, Air Chefs applied to the Ters temporary layoff scheme to receive further and much-needed relief for employees. Air Chefs is not in business rescue,” she said.

Maistry said the downturn in the airline industry as result of Covid-19 has hit Air Chefs' revenue.

“The matter will be resolved as soon as funding is received. Air Chefs will inform all key stakeholders as soon as funding is received.”

* Names have been withheld to protect identities.


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