The SAA Pilots' Association (Saapa) wants to know why – unlike other employees at the state-owned airline – their thirteenth cheques for 2019 have not yet been paid from the R1.5-billion in funding the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) made available to the rescue practitioners in December.
Saapa is adamant that the 2019 thirteenth cheques due to its members are payable regardless of the union having been placed in lockout.
Members of Saapa have been locked out by the rescue practitioners since 18 December 2020. A lockout is a mechanism an employer may apply and is the opposite of a strike. The rescue practitioners want Saapa to agree to cancel their current regulating agreement and accept new terms of employment. A lockout means an employer is not obliged to pay salaries from the date of the lockout.
Furthermore, unlike other unions represented at SAA, Saapa, as well as the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), and the SA Cabin Crew Association (Sacca) have not yet signed an offer of three months' salaries as full and final settlement of backpay. The rescue practitioners stopped paying SAA employees their salaries in May, claiming they had no more money to do so. The DPE, SAA's shareholder, has indicated there simply is no more money other than the three months' backpay it is offering now.
"We are in a dramatically different position to Numsa and Sacca and all other employees in that we have been locked out, while those employees are all still accruing unpaid salaries as the rescue process drags on. All other employees had been allowed to take up the salary settlement and have been paid their 2020 thirteenth cheques where Saapa members have not even been paid their 2019 thirteenth cheques. These cheques are not bonuses but are guaranteed as part of the employees' total cost of employment," Saapa chair captain Grant Back says.
The National Transport Movement (NTM) – a union which, according to Back, is not recognised to represent pilots – is one of the four SAA unions which has already accepted and signed the three-month backpay offer by the DPE. The few pilots who had joined NTM also got paid their 2019 thirteenth cheque. Saapa claims this is contrary not only to Saapa's agreements but also to the Companies Act, which requires all employee payments to be treated equally.
According to Back, in November 2019 – just days before SAA went into business rescue – the 2019 thirteenth cheques of all other employees, except Saapa members, became due and were paid by SAA management. Eight days later, SAA went into business rescue and the payment of those amounts contributed directly to SAA running out of funds, in the view of Saapa.
The 2019 thirteenth cheque for Saapa members should have been paid in April 2020. These were not paid to Saapa members in April 2020, however, and are still outstanding.
"The thirteenth cheque was confirmed by the rescue practitioners as post commencement finance and is owing to all pilots. The company's lawyers have informed Saapa that, due to the fact that Saapa members are locked out, the monies which are available for this and the salary settlement will not be paid," Back says.
"These payments, however, do not form part of the lockout dispute nor the period of the lockout and this stance from SAA and the rescue practitioners is nonsensical and not allowed for in law, in our view."
According to Back, some pilots had resigned from Saapa recently in desperation in order to try and secure payment of the salary settlement amount. Those who then signed the three-month backpay offer of the DPE, however, did not receive this payment nor their 2019 thirteenth cheque.
"The rescue practitioners cannot cherry-pick who they pay. If money is owed and the funds are available, then the law dictates that it must be paid. Saapa has challenged this action and we will undertake dispute proceedings, including possible court action, about what we regard as the unlawful non-payment of our members' 2019 thirteenth cheques and the unpaid salaries which are contained in the adopted business rescue plan" Back says.
"This breach of the law and contravention of the SAA business rescue plan is especially egregious as other, non-Saapa pilots, got paid this thirteenth cheque. That money is due to Saapa members regardless of them currently being locked out. It accrued long before the lockout and this is an attempt to further prejudice Saapa members and break us as a union."
Back says there has been no further progress in the lockout stalemate, but Saapa is and always has been open to further negotiations.
"We have attempted all along to find a negotiated solution. We agreed in principle to reduce our salaries by up to 50% and to cancel our Regulating Agreement and replace it with a fair and reasonable alternative, benchmarked to the market conditions as they stand. All that is required is for the rescue practitioners to be willing to compromise and do what is in the best interests of all stakeholders, as obligated to by the Companies Act," Back says.
"If they do not, they may take drastic steps such as unilaterally implementing their terms and conditions and retrenching the pilots. Such a step will lead to a long and protracted labour law battle for unfair dismissal and will likely jeopardise the relaunch of SAA and any potential discussions with possible equity partners. We hope that sanity will prevail."
The rescue practitioners responded on Friday that "certain groupings have signed [the three-month offer] and have been paid". As for Saapa's thirteenth cheque issue, they said the amount of R130-million was too big to pay, but that they have acknowledged that it is owed to those the employees.
The DPE's three-month backpay offer is still open for further negotiations, it has said in the past. The department has also called on individual employees whose unions have not accepted the offer but who wish to be paid directly outside their union's mandate, to contact the SAA human resources department.