KQ flying into fresh storm as pilots issue strike notice

L-R: Kenya Airline Pilots Association (KALPA) Secretary General Paul Gichinga and chairman Njoroge Murimi during a press conference. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA
L-R: Kenya Airline Pilots Association (KALPA) Secretary General Paul Gichinga and chairman Njoroge Murimi during a press conference. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA 

National carrier Kenya Airways is facing a fresh labour crisis after its pilots and contract staff issued strike notices, whose withdrawals are pegged on heavy demands, including the exit of the airline’s top management.

The Kenya Aviation Workers Union (Kawu), whose membership is made up of about 2,500 workers, promised a crippling industrial action if KQ, as the national carrier is popularly known, fails to improve the working conditions of about 1,000 sub-contracted and non-unionised employees by Friday.

“KQ has until the end of Thursday to ensure these employees are employed on terms similar to other unionised staff,” Moss Ndiema, the Kawu secretary general, said in an interview.

Kawu wants KQ to match the salaries and benefits of their non-unionised staff in customer care and finance departments as well as cabin and ground handling crew with those of unionised staff.

KQ has subcontracted these services from four different companies – Career Directions Limited, Insight Management, Tradewinds Aviation Services and Strami.

“Employees of these four firms are currently being exploited. If KQ does not review its position, the Kawu executive council meeting slated for Saturday will announce the date of the strike.” Mr Ndiema claims in a letter to KQ management that the contractors are paying the employees Sh10,000 grooming allowances despite the fact that the airline pays up to Sh150,000 per month for each individual.

Kawu has also directed its members to decline any requests to work on their days off “until the management agrees to offer monetary compensation”.

But even as the national carrier pondered what to do about the recruitment ultimatum, its 450 pilots issued another notice of intention to go on strike in a week’s time.

The pilots promised to ground KQ’s 36 aircraft if chief executive Mbuvi Ngunze and chairman Dennis Awori do not resign by Monday night.

“The bare minimum condition is that KQ’s chief executive and chairman leave or else our pilots will not be working on October 18th,” Paul Gichinga, the Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa) secretary-general, said at a Press conference.

“KQ is still a viable company and several forensic reports have shown that the airline lacks the right people at the top to steer it to better waters. We therefore demand the resignation of the CEO and the chairman.”

Kalpa accuses the duo of mismanaging the publicly-listed firm, leaving it technically insolvent.

KQ posted a record net loss of Sh26.2 billion for the year ended March 2016.

In April, Kalpa members went on strike for a day demanding comprehensive management changes, occasioning revenue losses of between Sh200 million and Sh300 million.

The industrial action forced cancellation of about 25 flights to destinations like Kilimanjaro, Lusaka, Zanzibar, Johannesburg, Yaoundé, Jeddah, Entebbe, Addis Ababa and Kinshasa.

Protracted negotiations involving Transport secretary James Macharia brought the strike to an end and led to the exit of several managers and suspension of others pending investigations.

The minister promised the pilots that more heads would roll once the report of a forensic audit of the airline’s affairs by Deloitte is released.

“Deloitte is undertaking a forensic audit of KQ to pinpoint which transactions took place when, their effect and who authorised them. The report will be out in three weeks after which we shall go full blast on all culprits,” Mr Macharia said in April.

A draft report of the audit has since been leaked, with damning findings that have only given the pilots the impetus to push their agenda.

The report highlights some of the generous contracts issued by the cash-strapped airline and points out potential loopholes in its excess baggage billing and ticketing systems that could have cost it billions of shillings.

“The recent revelation of exorbitant payouts to American consultancy firm McKinsey, at the expense of other critical work-streams within the airline paints a grim picture of the leadership’s misplaced priorities,” Mr Gichinga said.

A Senate committee investigating the troubled national carrier last December made the sacking of top managers of the airline a pre-condition for a possible bailout with taxpayer funds.

The airline projects that it needs a capital injection of Sh60 billion — in a mixture of equity and debt — to save it from collapse.