SAA pilots heading to court to challenge lockout, use of 'scab labour'

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SAAPA says reports that pilots have rejected a collective settlement offer of close to R1-billion are misleading.
SAAPA says reports that pilots have rejected a collective settlement offer of close to R1-billion are misleading.
  • The SAA Pilots' Association wants the Labour Court to prevent the airline from using so-called scab labour on an urgent basis.
  • SAAPA members have been locked out by the rescue practitioners since 18 December.
  • The union also recently started a strike to prevent locked out members from being used as replacement labour.

The SAA Pilots' Association (SAAPA) intends to bring an urgent application in the Labour Court in Johannesburg on Thursday, 15 April, seeking to have the airline's use of replacement labour during its ongoing dispute with the carrier declared illegal.

In SAAPA's view, the current lockout of its members since 18 December should also be declared unlawful. The union said in a statement on Wednesday evening that, should the lockout be declared unlawful, it is prepared to stop the current strike by its members immediately.

SAAPA members recently started the strike in order to prevent a 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.

"SAAPA has agreed to cancel its existing Regulating Agreement (RA) the day after its members are retrenched, but it will also argue that SAA cannot, while the current strike and lockout dispute continues, demand the RA be cancelled and also endeavour to [have it cancelled] through further pending court action, which SAA is attempting to do," states SAAPA.

"These types of collective agreements with pilots are standard in airlines operating the world over and, in essence, the RA determines working conditions, remuneration, benefits and a host of other employment protocols."

Salaries owed

SAAPA is also arguing that salaries owed to striking pilots from before the commencement of the lockout should be paid just as other employees were paid.

SAAPA chair Grant Back said the union is confident that it has a strong case and a decision in its favour on these issues will provide more clarity on a way forward. 

"To reiterate, our members are all just seeking what is lawfully owed to them. We are also dismayed that what is essentially a legitimate labour dispute between employer and employees has now become in part an ugly and hurtful race-driven debate," said Back.

"SAAPA has decided to take the high ground and will not in future be part of, or respond to, headline-seeking rhetoric. All of us have given loyal and dedicated career service to SAA in positions of great responsibility. The demise of what is a proud and respected brand, as well as the financial hardship of not being paid in a year, is causing us and our families much distress."

Back further said reports that pilots have rejected a collective settlement offer of close to R1-billion are "misleading".

"While the amount looks substantial, it includes a year of unpaid salaries for over 350 pilots as well as retrenchment pay for our pilots, some with 30 to 40 years of service, and would be subject to taxation," said Back.

The business rescue practitioners are also insisting that some of it be paid over a period of three years.

Settlement offer

The rescue practitioners sent a letter to SAAPA members on 9 April to say that, if they had accepted their latest offer, an amount totalling R704 million would have been paid out last week already, and a further R182 million during the course of this week.The balance of ex-gratia and severance payments would have been made over the next three years, with the first payment in the amount of R71 million being paid in August 2021.

According to the BRPs, these terms would meet the financial demands put on SAA during the settlement negotiations.The Department of Public Enterprises is SAA's shareholder. The Director General of the DPE Kgathaso Tlhakudi, in a recent opinion piece, claimed SAAPA's evergreen 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.

Tlhakudi said a "new SAA" would need a strategic equity partner and the succession clauses of SAAPA's RA makes the airline less attractive to potential partners. SAAPA, on the other hand, hit back by claiming 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".

The rescue practitioners are currently trying to wind matters up so that they can exit the process and hand the airline back to the interim board. SAA announced on Wednesday that Thomas Kgokolo has been appointed by the interim board as new interim CEO of the airline. 

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