The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) has accused Comair of colluding with another union, Solidarity, to circumvent the airline’s ongoing retrenchment process.
It wants the Section 189 retrenchment notices served to employees in October to be scrapped and new notices to be issued in line with the requirements of the Labour Relations Act.
Should its application be granted, it could put a spanner in the works in the implementation of the airline’s business rescue plan, which requires that a collective agreement between the airline and unions be adopted to allow for the retrenchment of 400 employees.
Comair, which operates Kulula.com and British Airways locally, had its rescue plan adopted by creditors in September and foresees that the airline will resume operations in December.
The rescue practitioners have successfully secured the R600 million required for post-commencement financing. The airline was grounded in March as the country imposed a lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19. This left Comair without the necessary cash flow to meet its operational expenses and service its R4.9 billion debt.
Numsa says it was not consulted on the business rescue plan prior to its adoption, as required by the plan.
Minnaar Niehaus, representing Numsa, argued at the Labour Court on Wednesday that prior to the adoption of the rescue plan, Comair management coerced some Numsa members into resigning from the union and joining Solidarity in a bid to ensure that it becomes the majority union at the airline.
The Numsa members, acting out of fear of the airline being liquidated, then resigned to join Solidarity, Niehaus said.
Promises of cash
Numsa’s Comair co-ordinator Frederick Mabasa told Moneyweb that the airline went on to further promise employees who had signed the collective agreement that they would be given a once-off payment of R5 000 each, which would be paid out once the retrenchment process is concluded.
Following this, a collective agreement was signed in September by the unions, representing 50% plus one employee at the struggling airline. Employees who signed the agreement waived their rights to salaries between May and December 1, and further agreed to a reduction in remuneration for 2021, in addition to agreeing to retrenchments.
“At the time that the collective agreement was negotiated, Numsa had 800-plus members and Solidarity had 87 members. Comair negotiated without Numsa’s knowledge and involvement a deal … with a party that was a minority,” Niehaus said.
He added that while Numsa was the majority recognised union at the airline, a separate agreement was negotiated ousting the provision of Section 189 of the Labour Relations Act. He argued that the union should not be bound by a collective agreement signed by Solidarity, the Airline Pilots Association South Africa and the Comair business rescue practitioners, Shaun Collyer and Richard Ferguson.
Solidarity’s organiser for aviation, Derek Mans, denied the claims and said the collective agreements were signed “in the best interests of [their] members”.
Advocate Andrew Redding, arguing for Solidarity, told the court that as the minority union at Comair, it would have to “suck it up” and be bound by the decisions taken by the majority union.
“Comair is on its knees and the business rescue practitioners … try to find a basis to save the business. A consortium of investors come and say they want to save the business if you reduce the number of jobs … the majority of the employees have agreed to give up their rights and have acknowledged that there must be a reorganisation of the business so that it has 400 less jobs,” he said.
Judgment in the matter has been reserved.