South African Airways and two unions that represent cabin crew and some ground-based employees have agreed to meet with independent mediators in an attempt to break a deadlock in pay talks that led to a 48-hour strike on Friday and Saturday. The airline is preparing to relaunch international flights on Sunday following the walkout, although the cancellation of all domestic and regional flights have been extended through Monday 18th November.
Negotiations got underway on Saturday morning with the help of South Africa’s Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration as the two sides try to find common ground in the bitter pay dispute. The Cabin Crew Association and NUMSA have demanded an 8 per cent rise, while South African Airways said Thursday that it was willing to offer an immediate 5.9 per cent hike in wages.
The unions are also unhappy with South African Airways’ plan to make around 944 employees redundant in a new cost-cutting programme announced last week. The retrenchments form part of a wider effort to stem mounting losses at the State-owned carrier but the unions want a moratorium on any redundancies.
“We are happy that the Unions have embraced our proposal for a commissioner to facilitate discussions aimed at resolving our differences,” explained Martin Kemp, SAA Acting General Manager for Human Resources.
Saying that it was in the “public interest” to find a solution, Kemp warned it was a “critical time for the airline”.
“We will not give up on saving jobs and securing a future for the airline. It will not happen on our watch that SAA’s proud history of 85 years, ends,” he continued.
On Thursday, Kemp urged striking workers to keep their protests within the law, saying that threats, intimidation, assaults and damage to airline property would be “dealt with decisively”. There was a heavy police presence at the carrier’s head office in Johannesburg as the walkout exposes painful wounds from the past.
Some commentators have accused the airline of becoming a corrupt “job creation” business with accusations of nepotism bandied around. Pointing to the number of paid employees as proof, it’s alleged South African Airways has a total of 55,500 employees – or 957 employees per aircraft. A figure that has since been widely debunked.
In comparison, British Airways is said to have just 154 employees per aircraft, while Australian flag carrier Qantas has a mere 129 employees per aircraft.
But while Kemp says the carrier simply can’t afford an 8 per cent rise for cabin crew and ground-based workers, there are some people who believe the airline is in financial difficulty because of the huge wages paid to the “mainly white” pilot workforce.
Tempers and emotions are clearly running high, although these simplistic and often incorrect comments don’t properly explain the airline’s financial difficulties.
South African Airways estimates each day of strike action will have cost it at least 50 million Rand ($3.3 million). The airline has racked up billions of Rand worth of losses in the last decade.