A South African labor court on October 7, Monday, granted Air Chefs, a subsidiary of South African Airlines (SAA), an interdict against a strike by its employees. Air Chefs provides catering services for flights and lounges in airports. The strike was set to start at 6 am on Monday. Ahead of the judgment, National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), which is organizing the workers, termed the company’s decision to approach the court as a delaying tactic.
The employees were set to strike in protest against the company’s unilateral withdrawal of anniversary bonuses.
However, yesterday, Air Chefs approached the court seeking an interdict against the strike action. On hearing from the lawyers of NUMSA and Air Chefs, the judge had sought time till today afternoon to give the verdict.
With an interim interdict now in place, any strike by the employees, pending the court’s final decision, will be unprotected. This means that the employees embarking on the strike can be dismissed or fined by the employer.
Outraged by the company’s unilateral decision to withdraw anniversary bonuses, NUMSA was engaged in negotiations since the beginning of this year. Since no resolution could be reached, the dispute was escalated to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). When talks at this level did not reach any conclusion, the CCMA issued a certificate of non-resolution in April.
Following this, NUMSA issued a notice 48 hours prior to the strike, as required by the rules. With Air Chefs employees in OR Tambo Airport, Cape Town International Airport and King Shaka International Airport set to down tools, SAA, SA Express, SA Airlink, Mango Airline, Air Mauritius and SWISS Airlines were expected to be affected, along with the lounges and canteens of SAA and SAAT.
However, despite the fact that NUMSA had followed all the procedures mandatory before embarking on a strike, the company moved the labor court yesterday, seeking an interdict.
“As far as we are concerned, this is nothing more than a delaying tactic to prevent our members from striking. It is outrageous that the employer is seeking an urgent interdict on the eve of the strike, when for the last ten months, we have been trying to engage with the employer on this issue, and they refused,” Phakamile Hlubi-Majola, the national spokesperson of NUMSA, had said in a statement prior to the verdict.
Air Chefs’ argument in court yesterday was that anniversary bonus was substituted by an annual bonus, which is mentioned in the Main Agreement. NUMSA, on its part, argued that there is nothing in the Main Agreement that substitutes the former for the latter.
“The employees of Air Chefs have enjoyed both annual bonus and the anniversary bonus for the last ten years. It forms part of the benefits of working for the company. The employer had no right to unilaterally change these conditions without consultation,” Hlubi-Majola had insisted.
Nonetheless, the court has handed an interim interdict, and “says we must return on the 27th November to argue why this interim order should not be made permanent. We are studying the judgement with the hope that when we return to court in November, we will be able to reverse this decision, so that our members will be able to exercise their right to strike,” Hlubi-Majola said in a statement after the verdict.