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Struggling city airline employees face uncertain future

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The employees are still fighting for their outstanding money, including overtime, leave pay, their salaries for March, April and May, as well as their retrenchment packages.

File picture: Nicholas Rama

SA EXPRESS employees in Kimberley face an uncertain future after the airline was placed under provisional liquidation, leaving staff with no income since the end of February.

Two employees, Lyell Leonard and Lois Sakoor, both of whom have worked for 26 years for SA Express, the state-owned airline, spoke to the DFA on Friday.

They explained that staff were informed on April 29 that the services of the 17 employees in Kimberley, along with those employed in the rest of the country, had been terminated. Since then, they have been facing an uphill battle to get the money owed to them by the company.

SA Express Airways is owned 100% by the state and falls under the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE).

In February this year it was placed under business rescue and on March 17 the company stopped flights. All non-critical employees were instructed to remain at home following the outbreak of Covid-19.

Leonard and Sakoor explained that a day before they were due to receive their March salaries they were informed that the company could not afford to pay its employees. “This means that the last salary payment we received was on February 25.”

On April 29, the company was placed under provisional liquidation, in a move that was not opposed by the DPE, and staff were informed that the company could not pay the outstanding salaries and there was no indication when this would be paid.

According to the employees, some of them received Covid-19 Ters benefit payments for one or two months, but because the company has been placed under provisional liquidation they are not entitled to this payment and were instructed to claim from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). However, they are unable to claim UIF without the Certificate of Service, which they struggled to get from the liquidators. UIF payments can also take several months.

For most employees, the Ters payment did not even cover their outstanding medical aid contributions to ensure that they remained on the medical aid.

Employees ended up forming social media groups, through which donated food parcels could be distributed to those in need to avoid starvation.

According to Leonard, some staff were forced to dip into their pension funds in terms of a special “hardship” clause, that allows limited funds to be withdrawn in the case of liquidation. “The concern is that access to pension and provident funds can be held up for months, if not years, when a company is liquidated.”

In the meantime, the employees are still fighting for their outstanding money, including overtime, leave pay, their salaries for March, April and May, as well as their retrenchment packages. “The Department of Public Enterprises has informed us that we will not get this money as there are no funds and we will have to put a claim in with the liquidators.”

They added that because the liquidators are based in Johannesburg, it is almost impossible to get hold of anyone, while e-mails are ignored. “We keep trying to get updates both from the liquidators and the Department of Public Enterprises, but it is almost impossible.”

Meanwhile, many of the 691 remaining employees throughout the company have seen their medical aid and life cover lapsing, while the impact on their bonds, car repayments, and car and home insurance has been equally devastating. They also face the risk of being blacklisted, which could affect the prospect of future employment.

Sakoor and Leonard described the last few months as “devastating”.

“This has been the worst year of my entire life,” Sakoor said. “I am a single mother and to suddenly have no income is devastating.”

She added that she had applied for payment relief from the bank on her house bond. “But this just means that I now have to pay interest on the interest and it has already resulted in an additional almost R20 000 on my bond. I have had to rely on food parcels so that there is something to eat in the house. I have worked so hard all my life to now have to deal with this.”

Leonard pointed out that because he was a supervisor, everyone presumed that he was okay financially. “We all have financial obligations and it has been very difficult to have no income.”

“I had my life mapped out but my plans have been destroyed entirely. I am 57 years old – my aim was to work until I was 60 and then retire but now I can’t think of going on pension. I have to use the pension funds that I have built up to live on now because there is no income.”

He added that he was looking at selling his house. “We have looked at everything we aren’t using and have tried to sell it just to get some money in. When you realise the situation that you are in, you can’t even think properly.”

Adding salt to the wounds, SA Express offered its employees voluntary retrenchment last year with two weeks’ salary for every month worked. Sakoor’s application for voluntary retrenchment was turned down, while Leonard was informed that his also wouldn’t be considered as there was no one else to take over in Kimberley.

“It is inhumane the way we have been treated. Twenty-six years is a life-time of work and we feel like we have been totally betrayed.”

SA Express employees have also not been allowed to enter the workplace after the company was placed under provisional liquidation.

“All our personal stuff is locked up in the offices and we are not allowed to enter. The liquidators have promised that they will appoint someone in Kimberley so that arrangements can be made for us to collect our personal belongings but that has also not happened.”

Unhappy staff members have pointed fingers at the DPE for ignoring their plight. “The employees do not have the financial means to oppose the final liquidation to protect their provident and pension funds,” one employee stated.

They have described the chain of events at SA Express as “the worst form of evil that is being inflicted on innocent workers by a company owned by the state” and have called on the DPE to “do the right thing” and fund the liquidators to retrench the employees and pay outstanding salaries.

“It seems that the department has agreed to retrench excess SAA staff at a cost of R2 billion but are not prepared to do the same at SA Express, which will cost less than R150 million to pay their outstanding March, April and May salaries and retrench everyone properly,” another employee pointed out.

Appeals to this effect have even been made to the president, together with a petition demanding that SA Express pay the outstanding salaries, retrench the employees and delay the liquidation until the staff have been properly retrenched to allow faster access to pension and provident fund money so that these funds to do not get caught up in liquidation and subjected to further management fees.

The DPE has, meanwhile, stated in response that while it is sympathetic to the plight of SA Express employees, the government has had to reprioritise spending in the wake of rising Covid-19 cases and is in no state to provide any form of funding. The employees have been informed to enter arrangements with the provisional liquidators as creditors.

The matter has also been reported to the Human Rights Commission, who stated that it believed that the human rights of the employees have been infringed.