SAA staff living on a wing and a prayer, devoured by debt

16 September 2020 - 06:00 By Iavan Pijoos
It's been a painful, emotionally and financially draining few months for employees at SAA. File photo.
It's been a painful, emotionally and financially draining few months for employees at SAA. File photo.
Image: Business Day

Consumed by debt, surviving on hope and prayers, and having to borrow money or sell valuables to put food on the table.

This has been the grim reality for many South African Airways (SAA) employees for the past few months.

Thursday this week will be the D-day for the airline’s funding.

The airline's business rescue practitioners said if government funding to restart the national carrier was not made available, they would schedule a meeting with creditors early on Friday.

The rescue practitioners’ spokesperson Louise Brugman said finalising the termination of aircraft leases and securing funding are two outstanding issues that were critical to the implementation of the business rescue plan.

Of the 5,000 SAA employees, more than 3,000 had applied for packages.

The business rescue plan, approved by the airline’s creditors in July, projects that at least R10.1bn is required.

The plan foresees only 1,000 people remaining employed by SAA.

'Delays and empty promises compound our misery'

Brandon* has been working as a lead purser at the airline for the past 23-years. He was responsible for making announcements and the “go to guy” for complaints or compliments from passengers.

He said he earned between R17,000 and R21,000 monthly, but his last full salary from SAA was at the end of March.

Since then he had only received about R6,000 from the Covid-19 UIF Ters fund. Medical benefits had also been cancelled.

“The loss of income has severely affected my family's life, from being unable to pay school fees and bills to severely cutting down on basics like food.”

He said he had to sell his car, which was paid off, to offset rising debt.

“That 90-day government reprieve issued to banks didn't really help much. The debt plus the accrued interest remained, so in essence one would not be in any better situation after that 90-day Covid-19 relief period,” he said.

“Also, with uncertainty surrounding the future of SAA, it’s difficult to tell banks that after 90 days you would be able to resume debits. So selling my car, which was paid off, really helped plug some holes.”

He was also forced to let go of the family housekeeper, who had been with them for the past 17 years.  

“It was beyond painful having to tell her, but there was nothing else I could do. From April I would send her R500 just so she could buy food. Last month I couldn't because we only received half of the UIF. I must say that the past few months have been painful, to say the least.

“For the first time in 25 years, it feels like I'm at a stage of depression. I'm a little fortunate in that my wife pays the bond and utilities now. But she can't pay everything. So we have cut down on things like having less meat, no outings at all.

“My question is, what about those who were sole breadwinners? Not only that, they took care of their extended families too. What now for them?”

“People are hurting. We live on hope and prayer. Each day we hope for a positive outcome that would allow us to decide what our next step is, but the delays and empty promises just further compounded our misery,” he said.

Still waiting for voluntary severance package

Another employee, Brian*, said the R6,000 he received from Ters was not enough to cover expenses such as food and paying for his policies.  

He worked at the airline’s airport operations department for 36 years. He borrowed  money from close friends and family to survive after only receiving R3,000 at the end of August.

He and his wife are on chronic medication and having medical aid cancelled added to their misery.

“I am on heart tablets and my wife is on cancer tablets. It’s not very good. We made arrangements with the pharmacy to get the tablets and pay as soon as we get money,” he said.

“They [policy agencies] told me if I didn’t pay my policies were going to collapse. I couldn’t let my policies bounce because I had it for so many years.”

He signed the voluntary severance package offered by the airline at the end of August.

“I am so stressed out because we are still waiting for our voluntary severance package money, but they are still waiting for money from government. How long must this drag on now? This dragging on and on and on, every month it’s the same story. They are playing with our feelings and it is very stressful.

“I only signed at the end of August for the voluntary severance package, so I was still employed by the company from the end of March, so we should still get our full salaries by the company because we never broke the contract.”

'My money is now finished'

Henry* has worked at airport operations for the past four years. He is living on savings and his credit card.

“It hasn’t been easy. I had a bit of savings, so thank God for that. I basically just paid my rent and bought food. I don’t know how I got through each month,” he said.

“I managed but I won’t be able to manage for the next two months because my money is now finished.”

He said he had been spending extra on chronic asthma medication.   He said SAA used to pay nearly half of the medical premiums.

“That is another thing that I am angry about, because I now have to pay for it out of my pocket. I spend about R900 a month extra on my asthma medication.”

A senior flight attendant at the airline, who has over 40 years’ experience under his belt, said he received just over R7,700 from Ters. At the end of August he only received R3,300.  

He has had to rely on food parcels from New Hope Ministries.

“I thank my family and my partner for helping me financially. I also thank the New Hope Ministries for feeding me and my colleagues,” he said.

“I want to ask the South African public not to blame me or my colleagues for squandering taxpayers’ money. We loved serving you.”

* These are not the real names of the SAA employees. Their names have been withheld to protect their identities.