The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Cabin Crew Association have taken a dim view of SA Express informing staff that salaries cannot be paid amid a national disaster.
On Wednesday, business rescue practitioners for the struggling airline wrote a letter to staff to say that salaries would not be paid on time for March. That evening, Numsa and SACCA slammed the timing of this development in a joint statement released by the two unions.
The unions said it was distressing that the airline would announce that there was not enough money to pay employees' salaries and not provide any updates or reassurances days before a national lockdown that President Cyril Ramaphosa declared to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
No income for preparations
"The lockdown is imminent, and workers have no income in order to make preparations for themselves and their families. They did not create the crisis at SA Express and they should not have to suffer for it," the statement said.
The statement said the unions made good faith efforts to support SA Express as a business, but that they had been undermined when transport and logistics company Ziegler SA applied to have SA Express placed under business rescue in January, a move they described as "reckless". Ziegler said SA Express owed it over R11 million, while SA Express disputed the procurement processes involved.
The airline was subsequently placed in involuntary business rescue, with Business Insider reporting earlier this week that liquidation was on the horizon.
On Wednesday, the unions said the payment of workers' salaries must be prioritised urgently and called for a continuation of an earlier turnaround strategy.
"We are of the view the that the application for business rescue was filed prematurely and demand that it must be immediately withdrawn. Government as the shareholder and executives must continue to implement the turnaround strategy which was distracted by the premature business rescue process," the statement said.
In a separate statement, the National Transport Movement claimed "bickering" between SA Express’ business rescue practitioners and the Department of Public Enterprises rendered the business rescue process stagnant as salaries ran the risk of staying unpaid.
"It is shocking and disheartening that the looting which has been the order of the day for the past 10 years to date is now felt by the ordinary workers at shop floor level threatening their livelihood and the very existence of the airline," the NTM statement said.
The NTM statement said that without much-needed intervention, the impasse would leave over 700 employees unable to make ends meet.
Earlier on Wednesday, the business rescue practitioners said emergency funding had been requested from the Department of Public Enterprises to pay for "critical and immediate operational expenses", which included staff salaries.