- November 22, 2021
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Workers at Entebbe Airport ground handler, NAS announce sit down strike
Workers of National Aviation Services (NAS), the main ground handling service company at Entebbe Airport, have resolved to lay down their tools a move officials say could paralyse Uganda’s aviation industry.
According to a notice sent on November 17 to NAS’ management in Entebbe, the workers said if their salaries are not raised by 100%, they won’t turn up for work on November 24.
“We shall be pleased if these concerns are addressed. However, in the event that they are not, we intend to invoke our right to industrial action in a week’s time from the date of receipt of this notice,” reads the memo sent to NAS General manager Noumane Zahouani.
In 2017, ENHAS was acquired by Kuwaiti-based National Aviation Services(NAS), a large airport services provider, with operations in more than 30 airports across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The workers say while NAS makes millions of dollars annually from ground handling of over 10 commercial flights, they are paid peanuts.
For example, NAS workers who manage luggage from the front desk to the sorting area and load it on the aircraft are paid 15 cents (Shs 1,500) per hour.
These members of staff work for 13 hours a day instead of 8, leaving many with permanent health conditions including mental illnesses.
“Let’s say an aircraft has 300 passengers with each carrying a bag of 23 kilograms. NAS attaches four casual staff to the aircraft to carry all these bags from the faulty conveyor belt to the sorting area. The bags are sorted and lifted to containers in aircraft holds. And the workers have to be very fast. It’s a lot of work where one is paid 15 cents per hour,” said a worker at NAS.
“The staff are ready to rise,” said an official at NAS, adding, “It’s been a long time coming. Grievances have not been addressed for a long time.”
The workers say despite grappling with an ever-rising cost of living, their salaries have not been raised in the last ten years.
Efforts to obtain a comment from NAS were fruitless as managers didn’t respond to our calls.
However, in a recent memo, NAS said it would consider a gradual pay rise in March 2022.
NAS further argued that its revenues were gravely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic that saw the airport closed to commercial flights for many months.
Yet, staff say NAS is an international company which is using revenues from Entebbe airport to fund its expansion in other African countries.
The company has since opened up branches in Nairobi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
NAS also owns Test and Fly – a company that made billions of shillings in mandatory COVID-19 tests until the government took over the deal after a huge public outcry over the hefty test charges.
“This means that NAS is not a struggling but a growing company. We are handling more flights and passengers have increased. The company just doesn’t want to raise our salaries which were negotiated 10 years ago,” said a source who preferred anonymity to speak freely.
“With the availability of vaccines, the business has been normalising and air traffic has significantly increased. As a result, most of us are now required to work more hours than we would normally do. Unfortunately, our salaries have not been increased to match the extra hours of work that are now required of us,” the memo to NAS’ top management reads in part.
Entebbe airport recorded 100,455 international passengers in October 2021 (45,799 arrivals and 54,656 departures), an average of 3,240 passengers per day.
“This is the biggest number of passengers recorded at the airport in a month since the resumption of commercial passenger operations in October 2020,” said CAA spokesperson, Vianney Luggya on November 8.
NAS, whose employees had increased to over 800, has lately lost over 200 staff.
NAS staff say “most of those that have left are oftentimes not replaced. This has created a manpower gap and exerted a lot of pressure on those left behind.”
The airport recorded 79,192 passengers in September (36,971 arrivals and 42,221 departures), 71,360 passengers in August (33,941 arrivals and 37,419 departures), 52,731 in July (23,594 arrivals and 29.137 departures), 69,346 in June (29,209 arrivals and 40,137 departures), 71,307 in May (35,012 arrivals and 36,295 departures), 80,785 in April (35163 arrivals and 45,622 departures), 71,904 in March, 57,988 in February and 53,504 in January 2021. The figures exclude transit passengers.
The surge in traffic in October is attributed to a number of factors, including enhanced vaccination across the globe, the commencement of flights in and out of Entebbe by new operators such as Airlink to South Africa and Air Arabia to Sharjah, the commencement of Uganda Airlines flights to Dubai, removal of Uganda from the UK red list in early October and easing of travel restrictions on Ugandans to Dubai, among others.
In spite of the increased passenger traffic, the average of 3,240 passengers per day in October 2021 is still far below the average of about 5,000 passengers per day in 2019 before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the side of cargo, the airport recorded 5,371 metric tonnes of cargo in October 2021 (2,243 imports and 3,128 exports).
NAS employees requested that “additional staff are recruited to avert a looming crisis of inefficiency as a result of the excessive pressure on the small workforce left.”
According to ChimpReports, there is panic at the airport where an industrial action of NAS could disrupt air travel.
The consequences of NAS’ industrial action means halting of nearly all flights as ground handling is one of the services that an airline needs if it is to operate efficiently since it involves loading, offloading, safety and boarding of passengers in transit from one airport to another.
“Only Uganda Airlines and Kenya Airways which are managed by other ground handlers will be able to move. We don’t want to get to that point. The entire aviation industry will shut down. We have sent to management our concerns but we haven’t got any response, meaning they are ignoring staff. The Civil Aviation Authority is aware of the impending strike. They know how much we work,” the source observed.
NAS workers’ responsibilities include ensuring passengers board the plane on a ramp or stairs safely; identifying the ultimate destination of baggage and correctly transferring it to the proper location; fueling planes; and preparing planes for takeoff by servicing the inside, including cleaning the interior, restoring the lavatories, and replacing commissary items.
NAS ground handlers also fill out paperwork associated with cargo, verification of COVID-19 documents for arriving and departing passengers and other required travel paperwork.
Currently, ground handling services at Entebbe airport are offered by NAS and DAS handling services. The contracts of both companies run up to 2040.
Faulty conveyor belt
NAS staff also want top management to address the issue of a faulty conveyor belt.
The belt was installed about four years back. It was functional for about a year.
“When the passenger puts bags on a weighing scale, the front desk manager presses a button to send the luggage using the conveyor belt to the sorting area. But casual workers now have to pick the bags up to the sorting area which is not only hectic but time-consuming,” said NAS staff.
“We request that the same be fixed to create a pleasant experience both for the clients and we the staff that are at the frontline of serving them. Some staff have developed permanent illnesses and nothing is done to look for a permanent solution.”