Kenya Airways threatens to fire pilots after collapse of strike talks


A fleet of Kenya Airways planes at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in this photo taken on July 15, 2020. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG

Kenya Airways will sack pilots who will go on strike next week after talks with their union collapsed, in an escalation of the labour dispute at the airline.

The airline’s chief executive, Allan Kilavuka, said efforts to negotiate with the pilots at a Tuesday meeting, which was attended by Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) boss Francis Atwoli, had hit a dead end.

The combative workers’ union has over the past two years frozen Kenya Airways’ plans to reduce the number of pilots 207 from over 400 over a three-year period.

“We did have a meeting yesterday (Tuesday) with the Cotu secretary-general Francis Atwoli. He came to help chair the meeting and we had a discussion but that discussion did not yield the results we hoped it would yield on the way forward,” Mr Kilavuka told a media briefing Wednesday.

“In fact, the pilots said that they had come to demand not to negotiate... They said clearly that the strike will happen if we do not meet their demands. There comes a time of reckoning and I think this is that time. At one point yes we want to listen, but at the same time there’s a bigger mission to keep the airline alive.”

The Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa), which represents about 400 pilots, issued a 14-day strike notice last week to protest a decision to suspend contributions to the provident fund, which they claim is a contractual agreement that KQ has with all employees. The pilots said that KQ has unilaterally stopped both the employees’ and the employers’ contribution since 2020 and has failed to resume the retirement scheme.

Also read: Pilots report KQ in plane speeding row

Mr Kilavuka said the airline was still open to talks but that it was his responsibility to keep the airline afloat.

“We’re still open to discussions, but at the same time, the airline is a local product that serves employees so my responsibility is to ensure that the airline remains in existence for the service of all the 3,800 employees and not just a few of us,” he said, adding that not all pilots supported the planned industrial action.

The CEO said that reviving the Provident Fund, the bone of contention, would have to be at the expense of something else.

“We do have this Provident Fund which is actually very sensitive and we as employers have an obligation to contribute to it. The only reason why the Provident Fund was suspended is because we couldn’t afford it and we followed the laid-down process in suspending that fund. We cannot be at the moment afford to fund it. If we fund it, it will be at the expense of something else,” he said.

Kalpa, in a letter, addressed to the CEO, cited the withdrawal of the Provident Fund and alleged harassment of union officials as the trigger for the strike. The pilots’ other grievances are non-adherence to regulations, violation of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), and leadership and governance issues. The last recent strike by the pilots was in November 2016.

KQ in 2020 said the pilots accounted for 10 percent of the airline’s total workforce, but took home the equivalent of 45 percent of the overall pay to employees or Sh6.48 billion based on the carrier’s wage bill for the year to December.

Also read: Pilots report KQ in plane speeding row

This means that on average a KQ pilot costs the company Sh1.3 million, which matches the salaries and allowances of top chief executives of State-owned firms such as KenGen, Kenya-Re and Kenya Power.

KQ recorded a ninth consecutive half-year loss, sinking it Sh15 billion deeper into a negative equity position.

The airline, which has been surviving on State bailouts since the Covid-19 pandemic, reported a Sh9.8 billion loss in August — a better performance than the Sh11.48 billion loss it recorded in the same period a year earlier.

It booked a further Sh5.3 billion loss on hedged foreign exchange differences, driving its total comprehensive loss to Sh14.9 billion.

The previous administration of former President Uhuru Kenyatta pushed for the restructuring of the carrier on the back of the multi-billion shilling bailout after dropping the nationalisation plan.

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