Namibia: SAA Leaves Namibian Staff Destitute

18 November 2020

A GROUP of disgruntled South African Airways employees say they have been reduced to beggars after the company failed to pay them for almost seven months.

During the Covid-19-imposed lockdown, South African Airways sent 26 of its Namibian employees on unpaid leave early in April, without giving them any indication of possible retrenchment.

Some of the workers say they have become dependent on others for financial support.

One employee, who wanted to remain anonymous, says his circumstances have caused him to be admitted to a psychiatric institution to be treated for depression. Additionally, he now needs anti-depressants and therapy, he says.

"The company needs to give us exit letters, pay out our outstanding salaries, pension and severance packages, so we can survive while looking for other work," he says.

Another worker says she is dependent on friends and family for financial support.

"Staff members in South Africa have been given exit letters, but the Namibian workers are not receiving the same courtesy," she says.

"Some of our houses and cars have been repossessed and our landlords have kicked us out," another employee says.

Other employees say they have lost their medical aid and cannot access chronic medication.

The Namibia Transport and Allied Workers Union (Natau) sent a letter, which The Namibian has seen, regarding their members' situation to the South African airline on 26 May.

The letter, written by union secretary general John Kwedhi, was addressed to Martin Kemp, acting general human resources manager at SAA.

Kwedhi stated that the company was in material breach of employees' employment contracts.

He undertook to refer the matter to the labour commissioner's office.

SAA did not respond.

On 2 July this year, 2 700 SAA employees were to be retrenched, according to reports in South African media.

Following these reports, Natau on 3 July wrote to the airline asking it to pay out outstanding leave days, voluntary severance packages and pension funds.

The union once again received no response.

On 2 September, Natau wrote a third letter addressed to the head of the remuneration and benefits department, Vik Ramlugaan, regarding the matter - also to no avail.

The letter, signed off by Erenfried Katjipuka, advised the company to approach the Social Security Commission to access the employer relief fund.

In another letter dated 1 October 2020, the union's branch organiser wrote to SAA threatening to refer the dispute to the labour commissioner's office.

Ramlugaan responded on 5 October, saying the airline is undergoing business rescue and restructuring and is responding to employees' and unions' queries.

"It is imperative to reiterate the facts as previously expressed regarding the company's financial position, which has been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic as the company could not operate.

"This links in with the company not being able to pay salaries, thus placing all employees worldwide on unpaid leave of absence," Ramlugaan replied.

He said SAA was only recently informed of the salary protection scheme in Namibia and passed the salary information required on to the local office's finance representative to coordinate the application to the local government.

"We do care about the welfare of our employees and everyone who has been severely impacted by the pandemic," he wrote.

South African finance minister Tito Mboweni told the South African parliament on 28 October the financially troubled national airline would receive another R10,5 billion in state funding in addition to a previous R16,4 billion injection.

The company in July said its business rescue plan was finally approved.

"At every juncture of the business rescue process, we have kept staff informed on the process [...] There is still, as it stands, no final decision on the future of SAA," Ramlugaan said.

Natau has resorted to approaching the Labour Court on 13 October regarding the complaints.

Kwedhi yesterday said they do not have a date to appear yet, because the court is fully booked until April 2021.

"The South African Airways issue is quite complex because the company is currently with liquidators [...] And even though the South African workers were offered exit packages, they are still waiting for their money," he said.

He sympathised with the Namibian workers, saying for now they just need to wait.

Questions sent to the airline went unanswered.

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