As South African Airways (SA, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo) fights for survival, two unions in South Africa have filed an urgent labour court application to stop the airline's business rescue practitioners from forcing through large-scale job cuts while ignoring the country's labour laws.

The South African Cabin Crew Association and the country's biggest single trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), expect their application, filed at the Labour Court of South Africa in Johannesburg, to be heard in the coming days.

"We've gone to court in order to safeguard the rights of our members and to ensure that proper legal process is followed if retrenchments do occur," NUMSA spokeswoman Phakamile Hlubi-Majola said, according to the Reuters news agency.

While analysts agree that redundancies are vital to keeping the airline alive, unions are concerned that SAA's recently appointed business rescue practitioners want to implement wide-ranging job cuts sooner than the compulsory 60-day consultation period specified under Section 189 of the Labour Relations Act.

Section 189 says that this consultation is a process, not a once-off meeting, and that before retrenching, employers must consult employee representatives about any collective agreement that may be in force. This is designed to give employees the right to challenge the fairness of the job cuts or go on strike.

The two unions are also seeking a second court order forcing the business rescue practitioners to implement a "training layoff scheme", in which a government authority would pay workers an allowance amounting to 75% of their salary for at least six months while they retrain for another job. The scheme was negotiated as part of a wage deal last year.

Irvin Jim, general secretary of NUMSA, warned on February 11 that SAA's BRPs Les Matuson and Siviwe Dongwana would be breaking the law if they went ahead with the retrenchment drive, according to South Africa's Eyewitness News.

"The business rescue practitioners are supposed to be putting together a turnaround plan. There is no turnaround plan, and there is no scientific basis as to why they chose this particular way," he said, adding that the union believed a secret plan was being hatched to sell the airline after the rescue process.