BY SHAME MAKOSHORI
UNDER fire Air Zimbabwe (AirZim) administrator, Reggie Saruchera buckled under pressure on Monday and rehired 300 workers fired by the airline under controversial circumstances five years ago, NewsDay Business can reveal.
Saruchera’s dramatic summersault came a week after his office had told our sister paper, Zimbabwe Independent that AirZim had no capacity to reappoint them following their landmark Supreme Court victory delivered on December 7. The workers responded by slapping him with multiple charges spanning from “gross maladministration, incompetence, mismanagement and wrongful and illegal deprivation” of a total of $100 million in unpaid salaries over five years.
Led by the militant National Airways Workers Union vice-president Elijah Chiripasi, who passed on in a traffic accident on Monday, a few hours before AirZim said they must return, the workers had on December 24 approached the High Court demanding Saruchera’s expulsion.
On December 7, the Supreme Court ordered AirZim to reinstate them to positions they held when they were expelled after the controversial Zuva judgment in July 2015, which triggered wholesale firing of workers at short notice.
The late Chiripasi, a war veteran, did not live to see the fruits of his five-year struggle for labour justice following the accident that was confirmed by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) on Monday.
“The ZCTU is saddened by news that vice-president of National Airways Workers’ Union Elijah Chiripasi passed on in a road traffic accident,” ZCTU president Peter Mutasa said.
“Although he had left the ZCTU, he was a member of the general council for a long time. We commiserate with his family and friends,” he added.
NewsDay Business can report that a few hours after the accident, AirZim wrote to workers’ legal counsel, Caleb Mucheche advising that it would abide by the ruling.
“The airline wishes to advise yourselves (in your capacity as legal representatives of the respondents) that in compliance with the Supreme Court judgment of December 7 2020 on the same matter, the airline has reinstated the respondents to their previous employment with the airline with effect from December 7 2020. The said letters are ready for collection at the airline head office. We want to notify the said respondents to collect their letters within seven working days from the date of receipt of this communication,” the letter read.
However, even if the airline agreed to draft them back to their positions, the workers will move into a totally different terrain.
Many things have changed at AirZim.
Back in 2015, it was limping. But there was a semblance of hope following the arrival of two Airbus A320 jetliners, which were being used to open new routes and rebuild the airline’s lost markets. AirZim entered the Tanzanian market in 2016, only a year after relaunching the Harare-Lusaka route using the Chinese assembled MA60 airliners. Most of this fleet has been grounded for various reasons. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic grounded airlines this year, AirZim’s operations had been affected by a sea of hurdles including lack of capital and sliding passenger numbers.
The latest aircraft to be drafted into the AirZim fleet — two Boeing 777s acquired by the ill-fated Zimbabwe Airways from Malaysia in 2016, are too big to salvage the airline’s domestic and regional routes.
It is not known how many of the affected workers will return to work in the coming week as five years have passed since they left.
Many may have signed up for employment elsewhere, while others may have lost interest in pursuing the case, given the highly publicised crisis at Airzim.
The airline only escaped liquidation after government raced to place it under administration about three years ago, with a US$300 million debt at the time.
But this week’s development at AirZim exposes hundreds of firms that rushed to lay off workers following the July 2015 Zuva judgment, which has now been confirmed by the highest court to have been illegal.
It may open the floodgates for multiple lawsuits across industries as workers pile pressure to return to their jobs or get financial compensation. Saruchera was appointed administrator with the difficult mandate to raise capital, carry out any function or discontinue any part of the business to make reconstruction successful, operate all AirZim accounts and admit all claims or demands against the airline.
But the 300 said he kept them in the dark.
“From the time the first respondent (Saruchera) was appointed as an administrator, no substantial update or accounting has been done towards the reconstruction of the second respondent (AirZim) to enable the second respondent’s employees to get paid a legion debt due to them among other creditors,” the workers said in their December 24 High Court application.