South African Airways may take legal action over unions’ safety allegations

SAA Airbus A340-300

South African Airways (SAA) has threatened legal action over union claims that its operations are unsafe, as the airline works to reinstate flights canceled when cabin crews and technicians went on strike.

An ongoing pay dispute with the carrier prompted the South African Cabin Crew Association (SACCA) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) to go on strike Nov. 15, forcing SAA to ground most of its flights.

The airline has since reinstated long-haul services, with several African regional routes scheduled to resume Nov. 19, leading to union allegations of unsafe operations.

SACCA and NUMSA did not immediately reply to ATW’s request for comment, but online video shows a NUMSA spokeswoman saying SAA is putting lives at risk by operating with inexperienced safety officers and temporary technicians.

“We are warning passengers not to fly SAA, because their safety cannot be guaranteed,” the spokeswoman said.

In a Nov. 17 statement, SAA acting CEO Zuks Ramasia described the union claims as “malicious” and said SAA will not compromise on safety and security.

“We call on NUMSA and SACCA to retract these untrue and unfounded allegations with immediate effect. If they fail to do so, we will consider taking legal action,” Ramasia said.

Responding via NUMSA’s Twitter account, the unions refused to retract the statement. “If you fly SAA while we are on strike, you are gambling with your life,” the unions said.

Ramasia also condemned what she said was union intimidation of employees who have chosen to work. Security has been increased at all airport access gates and parking areas, she said.

“The airline will not tolerate those seeking to intimidate those wishing to report for duty. Employees who intimidate or assault other employees, cause damage to SAA property, or engage in any criminal act or misconduct may be liable for criminal prosecution, internal disciplinary action or arrested,” Ramasia said. “Striking is a personal choice. No one should be pressured by a union or striker to participate in the strike.”

The strikes followed an impasse in pay negotiations. According to SAA, NUMSA and SACCA are seeking an 8% salary increase, but the airline—which recently announced a restructuring plan that includes more than 900 job cuts—insists it cannot meet the demands.

“The airline cannot afford to pay any salary increases. However, it has offered the unions a 5.9% salary increase effective in the March 2020 pay month. In addition, the company will pay the first six months back-pay, from April 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2019, in March 2020; and the remaining six months back-pay in April 2020, provided that SAA has received funds to do so,” Ramasia said.

She added that SAA’s financial position is “precarious” and said continued walkouts risk “fatal damage” to the airline.

“We urge the unions to reconsider the strike, which will without doubt, place SAA’s future in jeopardy,” Ramasia said.

However, the unions are looking to escalate their protests to a sectorwide strike, extending the walkout to all areas of South Africa’s aviation industry.

The Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) called on both sides to remain calm and explore all available options to avert a secondary strike. AASA CEO Chris Zweigenthal warned that going ahead with the walkout could cause a national crisis.

“Our sector is an invaluable asset to the country and vital to our already fragile economy and those of the entire region. While AASA and its members will always defend the constitutionally enshrined right to strike, any secondary, or sympathy, action will cause severe harm to our economy,” AASA said.


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