South African Airways cancels flights as workers go on strike

Union members said they were protesting the airline's plan to cut hundreds of jobs and its refusal to increase salaries.

    Unions of South African Airways workers are protesting planned job cuts at the state-owned firm, which has been struggling to stem financial losses since 2011 [File: Rogan Ward/Reuters]
    Unions of South African Airways workers are protesting planned job cuts at the state-owned firm, which has been struggling to stem financial losses since 2011 [File: Rogan Ward/Reuters]

    South Africa's unions have disrupted operations of the country's state-owned airline as it protests widespread job cuts in various government-controlled sectors.

    State airline South African Airways (SAA) cancelled "nearly all" flights scheduled for Friday and Saturday because of a strike over wage increases planned by a majority of employees, television news channel eNCA said.

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    Unions representing about 3,000 of its 5,000-strong workforce said on Wednesday that cabin crew and other workers at SAA would strike over the airline's refusal of salary hikes and its plan to cut more than 900 jobs in an attempt to stem severe financial losses.

    The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Cabin Crew Association, which represent more than 3,000 staff at SAA, have said they'll go on strike Friday in protest at the carrier's plans to fire 944 employees. Their demands include job security for at least three years, 8 percent salary increases and a halt to the contracting-in of security, cleaning and other services.

    According to the report, only flights directly operated by SAA would be affected. Flights by subsidiaries Mango, SA Express and SA Air Link, as well as those of private operators, would not be affected.

    SAA said it would hold an emergency meeting with the striking unions at noon GMT on Thursday to discuss a revised wage offer

    An SAA spokesperson did not immediately respond to telephone calls and emailed questions from Reuters seeking details about the cancellations and how long they would last.

    On Wednesday, unions said that the strike would continue indefinitely.

    "We are left with no choice but to resort to this drastic action by withdrawing our labour and going on strike," Zazi Nsibanyoni-Anyiam, president of the South African Cabin Crew Association, told a joint press briefing with the National Union of Metal Workers of South  Africa  (NUMSA).

    Unions said the strike would begin at 02:00 GMT on Friday. They are calling on SAA's check-in, ticket sales, head office, technical staff and ground staff to take part.

    The state-owned airline flies approximately 6.8 million passengers annually to six continents, with dedicated routes to New York, London and Hong Kong among its eight international offerings.

    But it has struggled in recent years, failing to turn a profit since 2011 while relying on state bailouts to fund a growing financing gap.

    The airline is also without a permanent chief executive and has yet to file annual results for the two most recent financial years because of concerns about its viability as a business.

    SAA said on Tuesday that it is expected to finalise a restructuring plan by March 2020 which should save the firm 700 million rand ($47m), based on 944 employees being fired.

    Lowering the government's payroll costs

    The state airline is one of several government firms that have sought to reduce staff costs and the government looks to slash its wage bill, which constitutes 35 percent of national spending.

    The South African Post Office is cutting several hundred jobs and paying voluntary severance packages to about 776 employees at the end of November as part of a phased reorganisation, company employees told parliament on Tuesday.

    The country's debt-stricken state power utility, Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd, was threatened with demonstrations by its two largest unions against plans to split the company into three 

    Unions argue that their workers should not be bearing the brunt of mismanagement and alleged corruption at state companies, especially as 29 percent of the workforce is unemployed.

    The Public Servants Association, which represents more than 240,000 state workers, this week called for urgent talks on the plan to reduce the state wage bill. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the nation's biggest labour group, called the SAA plan "a reckless announcement".

    The ruling African National Congress and its coalition partners, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, expressed opposition to retrenchments and privatization in a statement issued on Wednesday.

    SOURCE: News agencies