'Greedy', 'false', 'race-baiting': War of words between DG and SAA pilots

Battle between pilots' association and government escalates as national airline's aviators go on strike

13 April 2021 - 13:13
By Andisiwe Makinana and Graeme Hosken
The SAA Pilots' Association and public enterprises DG Kgathatso Tlhakudi have become embroiled in a bitter war of words. File photo.
Image: THE TIMES The SAA Pilots' Association and public enterprises DG Kgathatso Tlhakudi have become embroiled in a bitter war of words. File photo.

Public enterprises boss Kgathatso Tlhakudi has launched a scathing attack on white SAA pilots, accusing them of greed and maintaining a self-enriching apartheid-era labour agreement.

Tlhakudi's missive, in an opinion piece which was also shared on Twitter, came as members of the dominant pilot union at SAA, the SAA Pilots' Association [Saapa], went on strike a week ago, demanding among other things that the airline retrench them at their existing salaries.

In terms of the business rescue plan, the new, restructured SAA will retain only 88 of more than 700 pilots, Business Times reports. The report quoted the association as saying that during negotiations last month, the business rescue practitioners had tried to get them to agree to accept retrenchment packages based on proposed new salaries which would see their current salaries cut by 50%.

A later proposal by the practitioners suggested the retrenchment amount between the old and new salaries would be paid to pilots over three years with funds from the receivership.

The department is SAA's shareholder.

On the department's Twitter feed, Tlhakudi also posted a DPE document titled “Why White SAA Pilots Wish to Maintain a Self-Enriching Apartheid Relic Labour Agreement”.

The document stated that “Saapa has to decide whether they are going to be part of the solution for the restoration of SAA as a world-class African airline or if they are going to be an obstruction to the attainment of this objective”.

“We will not be blackmailed by Saapa and their greedy habits.”

A tweet posted by the Public Enterprises DG Kgathatso Tlhakudi
Image: Twitter A tweet posted by the Public Enterprises DG Kgathatso Tlhakudi

Grant Back, Saapa chairperson, said they were dismayed.

“We are disappointed that a government official has resorted to this level of race-baiting and blatantly false assertions.

“The director-general knows full well that Saapa agreed in October last year to cancel the Regulating Agreement [RA] in recognition of the global crisis facing aviation.”

'Pay us what we are lawfully owed'

He said the association and its pilots would not be used as scapegoats for the DPE-led failure of SAA.

“This is similar to what Dudu Myeni tried unsuccessfully in defence of her delinquent actions and the state capture of SAA’s procurement. 

“Saapa have also now issued strike demands, very specifically demanding the cancellation of our collective agreements on the day our last members are retrenched — but also that we be retrenched on a fair and objective basis and with the amounts lawfully due to us.”

'It's unaffordable and risks a new airline'

Tlhakudi has accused Saapa of being interested in extracting unaffordable concessions from the airline, for the purpose of attaining more benefits for their members at the expense of the old and the new airline that is being envisioned.

“We are dismayed and concerned by Saapa’s insistence to squeeze the airline’s limited resources ahead of the relaunch later this year,” he said.

A thread shared by the department of public enterprises' Twitter page
Image: DPE/Twitter A thread shared by the department of public enterprises' Twitter page

Tlhakudi described the RA, which is an evergreen collective agreement that SAA signed with Saapa in 1988, as a complete violation of the laws enacted for any democracy.

“Concluded six years before to the 1994 democratic dispensation, no wonder the RA is a complete violation of the laws enacted for any democratic society.

“Lest we forget that the core of apartheid was comprised of restrictions on the rights of blacks to own or occupy property in designated 'white' areas, as well as regulations preventing direct labour market competition between blacks and whites,” said Tlhakudi in an opinion piece at the weekend.

He said the RA was an apartheid relic preventing direct labour market competition between black and white pilots.

“The agreement is not only entrenching white pilots’ self-interests, but it is self-enriching, with only their concern being privileged packages to the exclusion of others, particularly black pilots, thus spitting in the face of transformation and a democratic society.”

'Cancelled' benefits: What's in the agreement

Tlhakudi listed in the six-page missive what he called “the greedy pilots” benefits which are contained within the Regulating Agreement:

  • over-50s contract, which allows pilots to withdraw from the pension scheme and take up a full-time contract until retirement age while retaining all other benefits.;
  • pilots that are rejected by the pension funds remain in the employ of SAA at the company's cost until they retire or able to return to flying;
  • rebated travel benefits allowing for confirmed business class travel which may not be changed in favour of a paying passenger;
  • excessive moving expenditure benefits;
  • giving pilots the right to perform flying and training for operators outside SAA, but not for competitors;
  • staying at four-star hotels Saapa possesses the right to select the hotels, while cabin crew and other employees are relegated to lower graded hotels;
  • a meal allowance agreement which pays pilots rates in excess of any other category of employee;
  • Saapa to agree to all aircraft leases before contracts can be concluded;
  • medical examination expenses borne by the airline, wherein the pilot retains the right to use the practitioner of his or her choice;
  • the seniority system which presents the company with numerous challenges in effecting transformation within the captain cadre in the pilot body; and
  • the RA to be carried over regardless of any mergers, acquisitions and sale of SAA considering the fact that the new airline would need a strategic equity partner, the succession clauses makes SAA less attractive to potential partners.

Tlhakudi described the provision of the agreement as worse than the Job Reservation Act of the apartheid era, saying they completely violate a democratic order and that the evergreen nature of the RA  was in breach of the Labour Relations Act of 1995 which renders evergreen collective agreements unlawful and impermissible.

“It precludes and impedes SAA’s ability to achieve meaningful and expeditious transformation. This is in breach of the constitution and the Employment Equity Act,” he said.

It is also in breach of the Public Finance Management and the Companies Act, he said.

In December 2001, SAA told Saapa it was cancelling the agreement with effect from June 30 2002. Saapa declared a dispute and a tribunal found that SAA was not entitled to unilaterally cancel the agreement.

The ruling meant that the evergreen agreement could only be amended by reaching an agreement with Saapa or through a power play such as a lockout in terms of the Labour Relations Act in order to compel the union to accept the airline’s terms and conditions of employment.

Tlhakudi said since Saapa members were locked out in December 2020, they have claimed that they had agreed to cancel the RA and have demanded to be retrenched at higher and unaffordable costs.

He said Saapa has proposed a last-in, first-out retrenchment approach, knowing very well that those who will be affected are black pilots who were beginning to make inroads into senior positions.

According to him, the 600 SAA pilots make up 13% of SAA staff, and yet they consume 45% of the wage bill.

Of the R2.62bn proposed budget for the voluntary severance packages ahead of the relaunch of SAA, pilots will get more than R1bn, he said.

A legal view

Avi Niselow, a labour law specialist at Clifford Levine Inc, said that unless an agreement was in contravention of the Labour Relations Act, Basic Condition of Employment Act or the Employment Equity Act, one could not say that it violated the SA labour legislation just because it predated the laws.

“People often speak of laws being wrong just because they are from the apartheid era, but legislation remains in place until it has been set aside, either by the courts which find it in contravention of the constitution or they are set aside through an act of parliament.

“Legislation is legislation and agreements are agreements regardless of when it was enacted or concluded.”

He said if Tlhakudi believed the agreement violated the country’s legislation, he would have showed exactly why.

Niselow said in terms of severance pay, employees who were retrenched could lawfully demand to be retrenched at their current remuneration.