The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) on Thursday accused the business rescue practitioners (BRPs) for private-sector airline group Comair of trying to blackmail employees into giving up their rights, ahead of a crucial meeting of the company’s creditors on Friday. The union also expressed concern about the investors and management proposed for the relaunch of the airline.
Numsa condemned the BRPs “in the strongest terms”. It asserted that the BRPs had not consulted Comair’s employees on the proposed business rescue plan and that they were trying to unilaterally force workers to accept changes to their terms and conditions of employment.
In a proposed collective agreement being put to stakeholders in the airline (including the unions) by the BRPs, workers would be required to waive their rights to any income from April this year to December 1 or until the date the airline recommenced operations. The staff of the relaunched airline would be employed on terms and conditions inferior to those they had before Comair went into business rescue. Not only would employee numbers be reduced (by at least 400) but those who kept their jobs would receive only 70% of their basic salaries during the ramp-up of the relaunched airline. Annual salary increases previously agreed between unions and management would no longer happen.
This proposed agreement had to be signed before the close of business on Thursday, stated the BRPs. If it was not, they affirmed, then one of the conditions precedent for the business rescue plan would not be met. This, in turn, would mean that the business rescue plan would not be approved on Friday and that would result in the winding down of the airline and the loss of all jobs.
“We are the majority union and we will not be signing the collective agreement nor will we be attending the meeting today [Thursday],” stressed Numsa. “Whilst we are committed to constructive and honest engagements, we are certainly not prepared to sign collective agreements under duress and in circumstances where Comair is simply attempting to blackmail workers into signing.”
The union recognised that there could be legitimate constraints and challenges that could require sacrifices on the part of the employees. However, it argued that it was “quite apparent” that the BRPs and proposed investors were trying to exploit the airline’s “disastrous economic situation” to undermine the position of the workers in a manner that amounted to “perverse exploitation of those who are most vulnerable”. In short, the BRPs and investors were engaged in “a violation of workers’ rights in terms of the Labour Relations Act. … We reject any attempts to bully employees into signing.”
Regarding the proposed new management for the relaunched Comair, the union pointed out that they had previously held executive positions in the airline. “We have good reason to be concerned because under their leadership the airline ran into financial trouble, and this was long before the Covid-19 pandemic hit our shores,” highlighted Numsa. “Therefore, why should we believe that this time around the same people who were partly responsible for the financial distress of the airline, would be best placed to run a successful airline in the future?”