Workers at South African Airways (SAA) have not been paid since March 2020, meaning that by the end of this month they will have been without salaries or benefits for 10 months.
Two labour unions – the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and the South African Cabin Crew Association (Sacca) – now want the the Labour Court to compel the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) and the airline’s rescue practitioners to pay over three months’ deferred salaries to their members.
The DPE and the rescue practitioners struck the same controversial deal with four other unions and three non-unionised workers formations at the airline in December.
Numsa and Sacca rejected the deal at the time saying that SAA employees should be paid their salaries in full, as stipulated in the airline’s rescue plan.
The two unions have suggested that the outstanding balance of five months’ pay be delayed to later in 2021 or that the money owed to employees be turned into equity.
They also want the court to force the DPE and rescue practitioners Siviwe Dongwana and Les Matuson to pay their members a lump sum comprising an agreed-to 5.9 % increase backdated to April 2020 as well as an equivalent pro rata contribution towards a 13th cheque.
Rights waived under duress
In court papers, Sacca president Zazi Nsibanyoni-Mugambi notes that the rescue practitioners extended the same offer to individual members of Numsa and Sacca.
Given that the unions’ members had been without salaries for months and were therefore in dire financial circumstances, some decided to accept the offer despite Numsa and Sacca’s rejection of it.
“Individual members are suffering on a daily basis increasing financial hardship to the extent that they are compelled (in absolute desperation and effectively under duress), to waiver their rights and enter into individual settlement agreements with the [DPE and the rescue practitioners],” says Nsibanyoni-Mugambi.
“The conduct of the [DPE and the rescue practitioners] was even more reprehensible given the time period of the year,” she adds, referring to the Christmas/New Year period.
“The [DPE and the rescue practitioners] quite simply embarked on a strategy that is akin to extortion.”
Nsibanyoni-Mugambi adds that the failure of the rescue practitioners and the DPE to pay Sacca and Numsa members the same funds paid to members of other unions should be declared unfair and unlawful.
The non-payments to Numsa and Sacca “is a blatant abuse of power on the parts of the [DPE and the rescue practitioners] and effectively amounts to unlawful extortion and constitutes a clear instance of discrimination contrary to the provisions of the BCEA [Basic Conditions of Employment Act]”.
Nsibanyoni-Mugambi adds that the DPE and rescue practitioners should make the payments to Numsa and Sacca members within seven days.
Considering that the DPE has disbursed R1.5 billion of the R10.5 billion allocated to SAA in October’s mid-term budget policy statement, Numsa and Sacca say the airline is in a financial position to pay the full outstanding salaries.
Instead of paying employees their full salaries, Nsibanyoni-Mugambi argues that the DPE ring fenced R600 million of the R1.5 billion to be used for Mango, an SAA subsidiary that is not under business rescue.
SAA has not been operational since April apart from conducting repatriation flights. These have since also been halted.
The parties that accepted the deal in December include the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), the National Transport Movement (NTM), Solidarity and the Aviation Union of SA as well as three SAA worker formations (covering non-unionised management and non-management as well as wider management).