SAA rescue practitioners to oppose pilots' urgent application against lockout

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  • SAA's business rescue practitioners intend to oppose an urgent application on behalf of the SAA Pilots' Association against them being "locked out".
  • There has to be a compromise from all affected parties for a business rescue to be successful, according to the rescue practitioners.
  • The business rescue practitioners have "locked out" SAAPA members since 18 December. 

The business rescue practitioners of South African Airways intends to oppose an urgent application being brought by the Airline Pilots' Association of SA on behalf of the SAA Pilots' Association (SAAPA) against them being "locked out".

SAAPA plans to apply for an urgent application in the Labour Court next week to have the lockout declared unlawful or unprotected.

The business rescue practitioners have "locked out" SAAPA members since 18 December 2020. This decision came after negotiations on a new agreement with the union failed and all internal dispute processes had been exhausted, according to the rescue practitioners. Those under "lock-out" are not allowed to render any services or get paid. The aim is to force them to accept the terms of a new employment agreement.

"There has to be a recognition of a level of compromise from all affected parties for a business rescue to be successful. With the approval of the rescue plan, all parties have compromised," the rescue practitioners said on Thursday.

"It is neither desirable nor sustainable that the pilots can carry their historical benefits into the future as embedded in the regulating agreement. The rescue practitioners are, therefore, going to defend against SAAPA's urgent application to reverse the lockout."

On Thursday the Department of Public Enterprises, SAA's shareholder, announced that it has decided to call on individual SAA employees from all unions who have not yet accepted an offer for full and final settlement of backpay, but wish to be paid directly outside their union's mandate, to contact the SAA human resources department.

The DPE says funding made available by government is limited and focused on restructuring SAA. Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan expressed the hope that 2021 will see the formation of a viable, sustainable, competitive airline that provides integrated domestic, regional and international flight services.

In the meantime, the Association of Star Alliance Pilots (ASAP), which represents nearly 50 000 pilots globally, has expressed "disappointment at the treatment of SAA pilots".

"The South African Airways Pilots Association is a respected member of ASAP. Our shared goal at ASAP is to protect and enhance the employment conditions of all our members, through mutual support and the promotion of the highest levels of safety," states a letter of support.

"We appreciate that SAAPA has made significant concessions towards securing the future of SAA and the pilots employed there. Your members have shown enormous courage and unity as you have sought to rebuild SAA."

The National Transport Movement (NTM) has come out in support of the rescue practitioners' lockout of SAAPA members.

"The rescue practitioners have our support as NTM in order to redress transformation..." says NTM president Mashudu Raphetha.

SAAPA has 367 members, representing 96% of the pilots employed by SAA. It is also the sole bargaining agent for all pilots employed by the airline. A key sticking point for SAAPA is that the airline seeks, in terms of its lockout notices, that pilots forego the rights afforded to them in their Regulating Agreement with SAA which has its origins in 1998 and including recall, payment and selection criteria provisions.

SAA has been in business rescue for more than a year now. Employees have not received salaries since May this year; and since the lockdown started at the end of March, only some repatriation and cargo flights have been undertaken. SAA has embarked on a retrenchment process in terms of the Labour Relations Act.

The DPE argues that in order for a restructured SAA to get off the ground, it is critical to reduce what it says is the the too-high cost structure relating to pilots in terms of a regulating agreement dating from 1988. In the DPE's view, the agreement also contributed to the lack of transformation at SAA.

A clause in SAAPA’s regulating agreement means that, notwithstanding any changes in ownership of SAA, the regulating agreement will remain in full operation. The DPE argues, therefore, that it will make SAA less attractive to potential investors if it remains in place.

Funding to implement SAA's business rescue plan - R10.5 billion - was allocated by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in his medium term budget. It is supposed to cover voluntary severance and retrenchment packages (about R2 billion) for employees.

The rescue plan only provides for about R2 billion in working capital to get SAA going again. That is why it is critical for government to find a suitable strategic equity partner for SAA to get it going again. It is foreseen that a new SAA will initially require only 88 pilots.

SAAPA has said in the past that hanging onto its favourable regulating agreement is not the key issue, but rather the selection criteria proposed for retrenching and then rehiring pilots for a new SAA. In SAAPA's view, it comes down to retrenching and rehiring "based on race".

* This article was updated with DPE and NTM comment.

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