The SAA Pilots’ Association (Saapa) has threatened to go on strike over “vindictive and slanderous” conduct at the hands of the airline’s business rescue practitioners (BRPs) Siviwe Dongwana and Les Matuson.
The association represents the majority of pilots at South African Airways (SAA).
The pilots have been locked out of the airline since December, following a deadlock in negotiations over the three-decade-long regulatory agreement.
Saapa has given the airline 48-hour notice prior to the start of the strike. This will be the first time in 50 years that SAA pilots embark on a strike.
“Saapa pilots have endured and withstood over three months of lock out and were last paid a year ago,” says Saapa chair Grant Back. “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.”
Back says the company late on Monday evening (Mach 29) notified pilots of an opportunity to return to work despite the lockout.
Back told Moneyweb the airline was attempting to “unlawfully cherry pick” pilots who belong to Saapa in an attempt to unlock only those pilots needed while the lockout of all Saapa pilots is still in full effect.
SAA seeks to nullify the regulatory agreement (RA) which gives Saapa members privileges over pilots belonging to other unions. The long-term sustainability of the airline is dependent on the termination of the RA, according to Dongwana and Matuson.
Saapa however says it has agreed to accept demands tabled by SAA, including the demand by the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) that the pilots change the requirements for seniority for career advancement within SAA.
In addition to agreeing to the termination of the RA, Saapa has also demanded that the locked-out pilots 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,” Back said in a statement on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan accused the union’s members of “sabotaging” the SAA rescue process by withholding valuable training of pilots which “can easily be done daily quickly in order that pilots are up to date in terms of the regulatory requirements”.
Back has hit back at Gordhan’s accusations, saying the pilots that are required to perform training have been locked out of the airline with the “blessing of the DPE”.
“Any attempt Saapa has made to work together with the company or the BRPs for the last 15 months, has been met with disinterest and our many attempts to assist or reach a compromise have been blocked at every opportunity.”
SAA, which has been in business rescue since December 2019, has received R7.8 billion of the R10.5 billion required from the government for the fulfilment of the rescue business plan. This amount covers payments to employees, payments to post-commencement creditors and unflown ticket liabilities.
In total, 3 246 employees at the airline have signed voluntary severance packages agreements. These were concluded in August last year, one month after creditors approved the airline’s business rescue plan. The payments however exclude Saapa members.
Saapa has demanded that SAA pilots who formed part of the Section 189(3) notice dated July 18 last year be retrenched by no later than April 15. The union has also demanded that the airline pay the pilots their remuneration upon retrenchment.
“Saapa will avail itself for a meeting with the BRPs or the company to avert the strike,” said Back. “But if all else fails, we remain unified and ready to meet any challenges.”