SAA and Unions Meet for Talks Amid Damaging Strike

JOHANNESBURG – South African Airways (SAA) and unions on Saturday met for talks the troubled state-run carrier hopes can bring an end to a crippling strike that it says could push it to collapse.

Deserted counters are seen as South African Airways (SAA) workers downed tools on Friday in a strike over wages and job cuts, at Cape Town International Airport in Cape Town
Deserted counters are seen as South African Airways (SAA) workers downed tools on Friday in a strike over wages and job cuts, at Cape Town International Airport in Cape Town, South Africa, South Africa, November 15, 2019. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Unions representing more than half of SAA’s workforce called the strike from Friday, forcing SAA to cancel hundreds of flights, and said it would continue until their demands were met.

The airline said the action would cost it 50 million rand ($3.36 million) per day.

The talks will be mediated by dispute resolution body The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). The unions’ demands include an 8% wage increase, and they also object to SAA’s plan to cut over 900 jobs.


SAA, which hasn’t made a profit since 2011, needs to cut costs to turn around – a mammoth task complicated by the huge sensitivity of job cuts in a country where unemployment is already close to 30%. Workers say they shouldn’t be left holding the can for years of management failures and poor governance.

Workers of South African Airways (SAA) hold placards during a strike over wages and job cuts at SAA headquarters in Kempton Park
Workers of South African Airways (SAA) hold placards during a strike over wages and job cuts at SAA headquarters in Kempton Park, South Africa, November 15, 2019. REUTERS/Siyabonga Sishi

Phakamile Hlubi Majola, spokeswoman for the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), one of the unions that called the strike, said they also want SAA to commit to bringing costly outsourced services back in house, which are blowing a substantial hole in SAA’s budget.

“Otherwise we’ll be right back here six months from now with them saying they’ve got no money,” she said by phone, adding the unions could not move on other demands before this one was met.

SAA’s woes have left it reliant on state bailouts to survive, becoming a source of frustration for taxpayers who have forked out more than 30 billion rand since 2012 as well as for a cash-strapped government already propping up other ailing state firms.

Acting chief financial officer Deon Fredericks says the strikes negative financial impact could jeopardise critical talks underway with lenders to secure the funding needed to stay afloat.

While it expects some international flights to restart from Sunday, SAA extended its cancellations for national and regional flights into Monday. The unions rejected SAA’s most recent wage offer late on Thursday.

“The unions have not really moved an inch in so far as their stance is concerned and this is what we are urging them to do,” SAA spokesman Tlali Tlali told Reuters by phone on Friday.

(Reporting by Emma Rumney; Editing by Kim Coghill)