Comair operates British Airways and Kulula.com flights. Picture: SUPPLIED
Comair operates British Airways and Kulula.com flights. Picture: SUPPLIED

Comair has scrapped plans to pay a portion of employee salaries on unpaid leave as the airline battles a cash-flow crunch in the lockdown that has grounded all of its planes and triggered the possible winding down of state-owned rival SAA.

The owner of Kulala.com, which suffered its first annual loss in its 73-year history in the 2019 fiscal year, was already reeling from rising costs when President Cyril Ramaphosa imposed the 21-day lockdown more than three weeks ago, which has since been expended through the end of April.

Comair,  which sent employees on compulsory annual leave during the lockdown, had said staff whose annual leave had been exhausted were required to take unpaid leave. The company had offered to cover 40% of basic salaries (of unpaid leave) for the initial lockdown period from March 27 to April 16.

“Comair has therefore offered partial payment in circumstances where it was not obliged to do so. Comair will unfortunately not be in a position to pay the 40% basic salary for unpaid leave during the extended lockdown period,” the company said.

The move prompted an angry response from union leaders.

Phakamile Hlubi-Majola, spokesperson for the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), described Comair’s management style under new CEO Wrenelle Stander as “dictatorial and tyrannical”.

She accused Stander of taking decisions without consulting unions, saying she was more interested in the balance sheet than the health and wellbeing of Comair’s employees.

In February 2020, Comair reported a half-year loss of R564m for the six months ending December 2019. The company recently embarked on a cost-reduction process that will see about 200 workers retrenched to realise an estimated annual reduction of R103m in its payroll.

On March 23, Stander said the company’s financial situation has been aggravated by the Covid-19 impact.

Comair said that it was “permitted” to ask employees to take leave as per the provisions of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, and that its approach in this regard “is aligned to that of many other employers over this time”.

However, Hlubi-Majola said the decision was wrong as Numsa had worked tirelessly to ensure the company applied on time for the Covid-19 Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme (Ters).

Administered by the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), Ters was established by employment & labour minister Thulas Nxesi on March 25 to provide relief to workers in formal employment who lost their income due to the lockdown.

Nxesi and spokesperson Sabelo Mali did not immediately respond to messages requesting comment.

“The government has made it very clear that it’s wrong for employers to force workers to rely on their leave when there is this Ters mechanism,” said Hlubi-Majola.

“Comair is flat out violating that. We are quite disappointed by the style of management which has emerged under this new leadership of Wrenelle Stander. This is why we are raising the issue about the dictatorial, tyrannical tendencies under this new management.”

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za

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