SAA pilots demand to be retrenched, plan unprecedented strike

Aron Hyman Reporter
Members of the SAA Pilots’ Association are expected to embark on a strike this week. Stock photo.
Members of the SAA Pilots’ Association are expected to embark on a strike this week. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/RICHARD VAN DER SPUY

SAA pilots are expected to strike this week for the first time in 50 years, demanding they be retrenched and paid three months’ notice pay.

The pilots claim they are being “targeted” and used as a “scapegoat” for the inefficiencies of the stricken airline’s management.

In an unprecedented move, on Tuesday the majority of SAA’s remaining 350 pilots gave a 48-hour notice of their intention to strike, demanding that a retrenchment process started on July 18 last year be concluded by April 15. They want SAA to pay pilots their remuneration on termination, and for the three months’ notice that pilots would have received to be paid in lieu of them working their notice period.

In a statement, the SAA Pilots’ Association (Saapa) said pilots were last paid a year ago and have been locked out of their workplace since December, an attempt, they said, aimed at “starving pilots” to force them to meet the airline’s “unlawful” demands.

Saapa represents 89% of the remaining SAA pilots, 99% of whom on Monday voted in favour of a strike.

Department of public enterprises (DPE) spokesperson Richard Mantu said, in response to a query by TimesLIVE, the DPE has taken notice of the notice of intention to strike and the pilots’ statement. Once they have reviewed the situation, they will decide on a response as it pertains to the department.

A spokesperson for the airlines administrators said they are “not commenting at this time”.

Saapa chairperson Grant Back said in the statement: “Saapa members have been targeted in a vindictive and slanderous fashion by the business rescue practitioners (BRPs) and the department of public enterprises in the press and recently at Scopa, where the minister himself targeted Saapa and made a statement that Saapa was ‘sabotaging the relaunch of SAA.”

The company, the BRPs and the DPE have used business rescue and Covid-19 to wage a war of attrition on the pilots of SAA.
Saapa chair Grant Back

He said the reality, however, was different.

“The very pilots needed to do the required training are locked out by the company, with the blessing of the DPE, and any attempt Saapa has made to work together with the company or the BRPs for the past 15 months has been met with disinterest, and our many attempts to assist or reach a compromise have been blocked at every opportunity,” said Back.

SAA wants to keep 88 pilots and Back said the airline was now attempting to “cherry-pick” them.

“The company, the BRPs and the DPE have used business rescue and Covid-19 to wage a war of attrition on the pilots of SAA, claiming the Regulating Agreement, which governs the working conditions of all pilots regardless of race or gender and which was signed in 2014, was the main reason for SAA’s demise,” said Back.

He said revelations at the state capture inquiry related to SAA and SAA Technical along with the court-ordered delinquency of former SAA board chairperson Dudu Myeni revealed the reasons for SAA’s “misfortune”, “along with years of publicly known mismanagement and ineptitude, all under the auspices of the department of public enterprises”.

“That the BRPs have not instituted a single court action to recover monies stolen, misappropriated and wasted by SAA and SAA Technical staff and managers and have also not replaced a single person in the woeful SAA management ranks, while waging war on the pilots of SAA and other employees, speak for itself,” said Back.

He said Saapa agreed to cancel the Regulation Agreement, which governs the employment conditions of pilots at SAA, in October 2020 but it would not accept the “unlawful manner” in which the business rescue practitioners wanted to retrench pilots.

“In an unprecedented move, Saapa has now not only demanded the cancellation of the agreement but we have also demanded to be retrenched as there is simply no reason why SAA and the BRPs have not done so, other than to further their agenda and attempt to prejudice the pilots of SAA,” said Back.

“SAA management and the BRPs have relished that SAA currently has minimal costs, with no aircraft leases or operating costs and a very low headcount and has used this advantage to attempt to starve out the pilots.

“The company has now realised it actually needs the highly skilled pilots it has locked out and is attempting to force a selected few back to work, while comically attempting to blame the pilots for the decision to lock them out.”

He said SAA sent out a communique late on the evening of March 29 in an attempt to “unlawfully cherry-pick” pilots belonging to Saapa in an attempt to unlock only those pilots needed while maintaining a lockout of the rest of Saapa’s pilots.

However, he said the lockout of pilots has not worked and pilots have refused to “bow to the bullying and attempted financial siege by those looking to scapegoat us”.

The BRPs have made four months’ worth of back payments to all SAA staff, except for the pilots, whom Back said are still owed payments from 2019.

“This is prejudice, abuse of power and malice at its worst,” he said.

Back said Saapa would hold itself open at all times to engage with SAA and bring an end to the dispute.

“Saapa will avail itself for a meeting with the BRPs or the company to avert the strike, but if all else fails we remain unified and ready to meet any challenges.”

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