SAA pilots' union hits back at DPE DG Tlhakudi, denies it wants to keep 'apartheid-era' agreement

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SAAPA challenges the DG to publish any part of the Regulating Agreement that grants any privilege or benefit based on race or gender.
SAAPA challenges the DG to publish any part of the Regulating Agreement that grants any privilege or benefit based on race or gender.
Gallo Images/Jacques Stander
  • The SAA Pilots' Association does not agree with recent allegations made against it by the Director General of the Department of Public Enterprises.
  • SAAPA members, who are currently on strike, have been locked out by the airline's rescue practitioners since 18 December 2020.
  • The terms of a long-standing regulatory agreement between SAAPA and the airline is at the core of the deadlock.

South African Airways (SAA) is in business rescue due to "financial malfeasance, corruption, tenderpreneurship, gross mismanagement and incompetence, lack of corporate governance and the constant interference by politicians and political agendas in its operation".

This is the response from the SAA Pilots' Association (SAAPA) to allegations made against it by the Director General of the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) Kgathaso Tlhakudi in an opinion piece published on Friday. The DPE is SAA's shareholder.

SAAPA members have been locked out since 18 December 2020 and have recently started a strike in order to prevent the kind of situation where the company lifts the lockout only for some pilots, especially training pilots, who are needed to get the airline back in the air again.

Tlhakudi claims SAAPA's evergreen Regulating Agreement (RA) with SAA, signed in 1988, is a reflection of "apartheid heydays" when there were no opportunities for black pilots. He also regards the seniority system stipulated in the RA as hampering transformation "... within the captain cadre in the pilot body". Aviation experts have, however, pointed out that this seniority system is usually followed by airlines all over the world.

The "evergreen" aspect of the RA means provisions contained therein must be carried over regardless of any mergers, acquisitions, and sale of SAA.

"Considering the fact that the new airline would need a strategic equity partner, the succession clauses make SAA less attractive to potential partners," said Tlhakudi. He further stated that SAA was financially crippled and fighting for its survival against the backdrop of the global airline industry being devastated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

SAAPA, on the other hand, responds that "all senior management and the board were appointed by the DPE, including delinquent directors and a multitude of CEOs. While the SAAPA does not wish to be drawn into this puerile and vitriolic false narrative by the DG of the DPE, we cannot allow his spurious and misleading assertions to stand entirely unchallenged".

"Apartheid was a vicious and inhumane system. The DG's claims that the pilots of SAA seek to perpetuate any form or benefit from this stain on our country's past is rejected with contempt... The DG has embarked on a contrived attempt to paint our Regulating Agreement as a relic of this horrific period. This is also transparently an attempt to distract from the failings of the DPE under the oversight of Mr Tlhakudi himself," states SAAPA.

Furthermore, SAAPA claims research has shown remuneration of SAA pilots is in line with that of others around the world.

"SAAPA represents 89% of all pilots at SAA of all races and genders. Our Regulating Agreement governs the terms and conditions of all pilots regardless of race or gender and does not differentiate in any way other than on years of service, which is categorically and distinctly allowed for in our country's laws, including the Employment Equity Act," it says.

"SAAPA challenges the DG to publish any part of the Regulating Agreement that grants any privilege or benefit based on race or gender, or even any part that is different to the many other collective agreements that govern the working conditions of pilots from major airlines within South Africa and from around the world."

SAAPA points out that it has agreed to terminate the Regulating Agreement the day after the last pilot is retrenched.

"We have done so in recognition only of the global crisis that is facing aviation today. We will not agree though, to being retrenched on salaries 50% lower than what we currently earn, nor on lesser terms than what the Basic Conditions of Employment Act provides for and which other employees at SAA have already received," states SAAPA.

"The retrenchment of pilots must be fair, it must be lawful and SAA must pay what it owes by law to its pilot employees."

SAA's business rescue practitioners are hoping to reach a settlement with SAAPA and get rid of the union's RA.

Update: In the view of Derek Mans, organiser for aviation and defence at union Solidarity, Tlhakudi is "opportunistic" to blame the pilots for SAA's downfall. Mans regards it as an attempt at "shifting the narrative away from state capture, state interference and cadre deployment and turning it into a matter of race and not a matter of law.

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