Hein Kaiser
Journalist
5 minute read
31 May 2021
10:16 am

Mango staff’s lives on hold as airline’s limbo act drags on

Hein Kaiser

'One day we have a job, then the next we might be closing. The emotional stress is enormous,' say frustrated Mango staff.

Picture: Supplied

Since its grounding just over a three weeks ago, the sustained uncertainty at Mango must be taking a toll on its personnel.

The promised R819 million bailout is yet to arrive.

Mango flights are selling at bargain basement prices with no inventory on sale beyond 31 May. The airline’s Benediction Zubane said that clarity will only be forthcoming on Monday.

Mango flight sheet

As of Monday morning, there are still no flights available on Mango’s website. Photo: Screenshot/Mango

While Mango has not formally laid off or retrenched anyone yet, the math points to a staff compliment that is more than likely sitting at home, in limbo.

With only a handful of flights operating, a schedule published for short periods of flying and much of its fleet on the ground, it cannot be easy for a collective that voluntarily took pay cuts to help fund the airline’s survival.

Mental health declines

Last year, Fast Company magazine reported that furloughed employees in the United States are 37% more likely to report declines in their mental health.

In the article, it suggests that being in limbo is a “really, really stressful event and that stress can bleed over into all aspects of our lives”.

It goes on to say that as stress increases, it becomes a cycle that in turn makes it more difficult to mitigate.

“Coping strategies are unsuccessful as you can’t job hunt, you get burned out. Life becomes miserable and you get depressed.”

Psychologist Louisa Niehaus adds that the difficulty about being in limbo is that limbo does not affect just the individual, it affects all aspects of one’s life.

You may be waiting for the axe to drop, but in all likelihood, your immediate and extended families will be feeling the strain and agony of trying to manage their fears and expectations as well.

She says that “not knowing is worse than knowing. Knowing is definitive and allows for closure and a chance to move forward. In the unknown, people are subjected to the agony of the rumour mill,  misinformation,  gossip and fear mongering.”

“This limbo state is very anxiety provoking and could trigger various responses such as anxiety, depression, insomnia and self-esteem issues,” adds Niehaus.

Labour attorney Leigh Allardyce from Allardyce and Partners says that while there is no legal provision that specifically covers being left in limbo as an employee, staff can argue that there has been a breach to the contracts of employment by Mango, which may afford them an opportunity to claim damages due to the material breach of their employment contracts.

She says that an employee is entitled to have certainty pertaining to his or her employment status.

Communication lacking

“In the current case, where Mango is in financial distress and may be facing the need to take drastic steps to remain in operation whether these be through business rescue, liquidation or simply restructuring and redundancy as contemplated in terms of Section 189 of the Labour Relations Act, it should ensure that the lines of communication with its employees are constant and remain open and transparent to alleviate the employees’ uncertainty during these difficult times.”

The Fast Company online analysis notes that the isolation of staying at home, in limbo, impacts employees need to feel connected.

It short-circuits a sense of belonging and, with it, a person’s way to self-identity.

“You suffer a crisis of who you are, and it makes you feel unsettled.”

Once the finality of, for example, a reduction in the workforce, materialises, “at least you know a door is closed”. This finality at least removes the uncertainty.

A Mango staff member said to The Citizen that “employees have been left in the dark about their future and have been told the minister and the board needed more time to come up with a short- and medium-term plan”.

He is distraught at the uncertainty regarding their jobs.

“One day we have a job again, then the next we might be closing. The emotional stress is enormous. Every week we fight to keep our jobs in an industry decimated by the pandemic. There is nowhere else for us to go.”

Allardyce speculates that Mango would be expected, at the very least, to have commenced with the (Section 189) retrenchment process “given that retrenchments in these circumstances must have already been contemplated”.

Accordingly, the employees are entitled to be informed and remain informed of the business case scenario faced by Mango and the effect thereof on their employment and more importantly their future employment with Mango.

Unless Mango has commenced the process as contemplated in terms of Section 189 and 189A, the employees may well have a right to refer claims for unfair labour practice on the basis that the terms and conditions of employment are unilaterally being changed by the employer.

Long-term anxiety

In the Fast Company analysis, Anthony Wheeler, of the Widener University School of Business Administration, says that the long-term anxiety can lead to catastrophising, thinking about worst case scenarios.

The “ruminating that follows makes it hard to move on”, meaning that job hunting, getting references together and networking are all negatively impacted.

“The worrying grows worse.”

The article also quotes psychologist Mary Alvord, who says that people hang on and think that it may just be short-term at the beginning, or only a few months.

“They’re on hold and they are not sure.”

Allardyce adds that “it is unsatisfactory for both the employer and the employee for this uncertainty to drag on for any length of time, and the employees should urge their unions to use their collective bargaining power to bring this to a head”.