Carol Paton Editor at Large
Workers of SAA hold placards during a strike over wages and job cuts at SAA headquarters in Kempton Park, November 15 2019. Picture: REUTERS/SIYABONGA SISHI.
Workers of SAA hold placards during a strike over wages and job cuts at SAA headquarters in Kempton Park, November 15 2019. Picture: REUTERS/SIYABONGA SISHI.

The court application by two of SAA’s largest trade unions to stop the retrenchment of employees by the airline’s business rescue practitioners, will be heard in the labour court in Johannesburg on Thursday.

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and the SA Cabin Crew Association, which in coalition are the majority union, want the retrenchment notices (under section 189 of the Labour Relations Act) that were sent to employees declared unlawful because the plan to rescue the airline has still not been seen by the unions concerned.

Rescue practitioners Les Matuson and Siviwe Dongwana are opposing the application, which Numsa and Sacca want heard on an urgent basis. Alternatively, Numsa and Sacca want the issuing of the notices to be declared unfair.

The court application is the latest in the drawn-out saga of the rescue of SAA, which was placed in business rescue on December 5. Under normal circumstances, a rescue plan must be produced in 30 days, but successive delays have been requested by public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, who is the shareholder representative on behalf of government. Under the Public Finance Management Act, Gordhan also has the authority to trump the business rescue practitioners’ actions, particularly with regard to the sale of assets.

Matuson and Dongwana said in a letter to creditors in April that the rescue process had come to a stop as the funds for the process had been depleted and Gordhan had informed them that the government was unable to provide any more financial support. It was after that that the business rescue practitioners accelerated the retrenchment process.

Unions have until Friday to accept the severance offer and individuals have until May 11 to do so. Should they fail to agree, the business rescue practitioners can then go ahead and unilaterally retrencht them. The terms of the offer have not been made public but what is clear is that employees will only see any money after the disposal of assets has taken place to fund the retrenchment packages.

About 10,000 employees across the SAA group — which also includes Mango, SAA Technical and Air Chefs — stand to lose jobs in the process, at a time when their re-employment in the sector is tenuous. The Covid-19 crisis has put airlines the world over into deep financial trouble, with most air travel suspended and unlikely to resume at pre-crisis levels, for at least 18 months.

Gordhan has now begun a parallel process to the business rescue process with trade union representatives, and has brokered an accord that will see some employees rehired in a new airline, should it turn out to be feasible.

patonc@businesslive.co.za