If you had told me at the beginning of the year that I would be sitting at home wondering where my next pay-cheque would come from, I would have laughed in your face. For me, the beginning of 2020 was full of promise. I was starting a new job and job security was the furthest thing from my mind.
Granted, SA Express was grounded in 2018, but the airline had been flying for a year-and-a-half since then and appeared to be a going concern – why else would I be hired?
All that changed when the state-owned airline was put under involuntary business rescue on 6 February. The court-appointed Daniel Terblanche and Phahlani Mkhombo as business rescue practitioners (BRP). Their appointment was approved by the first meeting of the creditors on 20 February.
At the first meeting with employees, the BRP assured us the business would run as usual and we would be kept up to date as the process continued. On 18 March we were informed by letter that because of Covid-19 all employees who did not need to be physically on site would be required to work from home as of the next day. This was for our own good, we were told.
The wheels started to fall off when we received a letter on 24 March informing us salaries would not be paid the following day because the BRP were waiting for a response from the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) regarding the company’s inability to pay its employees. Mkhombo and Terblanche said they had requested emergency funding to cover critical and immediate expenses including salaries, but no reply had been received yet. This meant employees had to inform their creditors of the abnormal situation without saying when it would be resolved.
Nothing, however, could have prepared us for the news that interim Chief Executive Siza Mzimela had resigned and was leaving the company in the middle of the crisis.
March ended and April started; still no salaries and no communication. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act states, “An employer is under obligation to pay the worker wages in ZAR within 7 days after the completion of the wage period for which wages are payable.” Seven days lapsed and DPE said nothing. Employees wrote a letter to the department alerting them to our difficulties and requesting a response regarding outstanding salaries. All we got as a response from Minister Pravin Gordhan was a little sympathy and a lot of tongue-lashing for not understanding the process, but he said nothing about our salaries.
Other than the deafening silence from the minister, employees worried about medical aid lapsing, particularly those with chronic illnesses because they could not access treatment in the public health system if they were not registered. The other major worry was the lapsing of life cover: if one of us had to die of Covid-19, how would their family be provided for because the company had not paid over our contributions? The possibility of being blacklisted for not paying home loans, car instalments, etc weighed heavily on us along with the adverse consequences of not being able to secure future employment.
We heaved a sigh of relief on 17 April when we were informed DPE had applied for the Unemployment Insurance Fund Ters and Covid-19 Relief to assist with salary payments. The relief was short-lived, however, because on 29 April a high court placed SA Express under provisional liquidation. Similar to when it was placed under business rescue, DPE did not oppose the application.
I keep wondering if the well-being of employees is inconsequential to the shareholder? SA Express employees do not have the financial means to oppose the final liquidation so that we can protect our provident and pension funds and any other retrenchment packages that might apply.
The chain of events at SA Express over the last three months defies logic and flies in the face of President Cyril Ramaphosa and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s tweets that the duty of the state is to take care of its citizens. Employees of 100% state-owned SA Express have been put through the worst kind of hell in the last few months by the very same government that claims to care about its citizens. Or are we not considered citizens because we work for a state-owned entity?
With respect, the DPE and Treasury cannot pretend to have been unaware of what was happening at SA Express all along because they had meetings with management almost on a weekly basis. As for Mzimela being rewarded with a promotion to Transnet after leaving SA Express in disarray, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
The way I see it, DPE never intended to save SA Express, that is obvious in the way they opposed the BRP’s rescue attempts at every stage. This was just a tactic to frustrate the process, hence they did not oppose any one of the court applications. DPE and government are playing with people’s livelihoods. How does one trust such a government? DM