South African Airways (SAA) workers on Friday embarked on an indefinite strike for higher wages and against the national carrier’s retrenchment plan, forcing the cash-strapped airline to ground hundreds of flights.
However, several international passengers landing at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg say they had no idea that SAA had scrapped all domestic and regional flights and some international flights on Friday and Saturday.
42-year-old Rodrigo Izquierdo arrived from Sao Paulo, Brazil on Friday morning, expecting to make a connecting flight to Gaborone in Botswana.
“I had no idea [about flight cancellations]. I just arrived from Sao Paulo. I hope the airline gives me another flight,” he said.
It was a similar experience for 21-year-old Jarrod Balcomb from Sydney, Australia. He said that he had received no prior notification beforehand that his flight had been cancelled.
“We came through South Africa to go to Namibia for a safari and we were going to catch SA Airlines but they got the strike on so we are going through Air Namibia.
“It could have been worse but I think with those guys [Air Namibia] helping us out, we ended up getting a new flight really quickly,” Balcomb said.
The South African Airways Cabin Crew Association (SACAA) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) served the airline with a strike notice for Friday.
The unions claim that 3,000 of their members will be participating, in the strike which was expected to start at 4am on Friday morning. Cabin crew, check-in staff and technical staff will be involved, reported Fin24.
SAA has 5,146 employees and earlier this week announced plans to retrench up to a fifth of their workers as it battles massive losses, which have piled up to R28 billion.
The unions are protesting the planned retrenchments and unmet wage hike demands, while SAA’s acting CEO Zuks Ramasia has warned that the airline, which is technically insolvent, may not be able to recover from the strike.
The company has reportedly asked travellers who had flights booked between Friday and Saturday not to turn up at airports and offered them a chance to rebook for free or to fly on other flights operated by partner airlines.
More than 3,000 workers, including cabin crew, check-in, ticket sales, technical and ground staff, are taking part in the open-ended, according to unions.
Hundreds of placard-waving workers picketed near OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg – one of the continent’s busiest airport – singing and dancing.
“We will continue with the strike (until demands are met),” Sifiso Mabena, an aircraft mechanic at the airport told AFP.
Unions pressed on with the walkout after talks with management deadlocked.
Zazi Nsibanyoni-Mugambi, president of the South African Cabin Crew Association (SACCA), however, said a new round of mediated talks with the airline was expected on Saturday.
“We have always and will always be willing to negotiate and talk to management, we have told them this time and time again,” Nsibanyoni-Mugambi told AFP.
The airline is one of the biggest in Africa, with a fleet of more than 50 aircraft providing dozens of domestic, regional and European flights each day, but the company is deep in debt, despite several government bailouts, and has not recorded a profit since 2011.
The unions are pressing for a three-year guarantee of job security and an 8% across-the-board wage hike. The airline is offering a 5.9% increase.
The unions said “inflated contracts” outsourcing work were “crippling SAA’s finances (and) literally bleeding SAA dry every day”.
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced in February that the government would reimburse the company’s R9.2-billion debt over the next three years.
South Africa is struggling to get its state-owned companies back on track after nine years of corruption and mismanagement under former president Jacob Zuma. – The Citizen