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Wage Cuts, LWP - Is This How Govt Rewards ‘Corona Warriors’? Asks Air India Joint Union

Representative image.

Representative image.

Here's our exclusive interview with Air India Joint Forum of All Unions, representing all union bodies of India's national carrier opposing wage cuts and Leave Without Pay.

Zeba Warsi
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Indian national air carrier - Air India - recently announced wage cut for employees and also compulsory Leave Without Pay to offset the losses incurred due to Covid-19. While Air India has justified the move by saying that the air carrier is not laying off any employee like other carriers, various Air India unions have been opposing the move saying wage cuts and compulsory Leave without pay is not a way to reward ‘Corona warriors’?

Here's our exclusive interview with Air India Joint Forum of All Unions:

Who all are a part of the Air India Joint Forum of All Unions, who do you represent and what is the goal?

The Air India Joint Forum of Unions is a loose arrangement where different AI Unions come together for a common agenda like in this case, against privatisation. We are employees; we are pilots, cabin crew, ground staff who’ve worked tirelessly for the national carrier and need our concerns to be voiced. Unions are not bound in any way and are free to pursue issues individually or as a Forum. The main agenda of the Forum is to fight privatisation. At the moment, we are fiercely against the latest order that forces compulsory Leave Without Pay up to 5 years on dedicated Air India employees.

Air India has been staring at an uncertainty for far too long, but this time around the ministry seems very clear. Aviation Minister said that ‘the government is in no position to support Air India’. What has been the resultant impact on employees?

Yes. Minister made such statements that GoI will not support Air India. Earlier this year, the minister made a statement that if Air India didn’t get an investor then we will shut it down by March. We had opposed this irresponsible statement by writing to the Prime Minister.

As it turned out in March, Air India employees were risking their lives in evacuation flights as a service to the nation during the lockdown. When the pandemic led to a national disaster, the GoI had no choice but to entrust AI with the Vande Bharat Mission to bring back Indians stranded all over the world and also for other Charter Flights for movement of essential Cargo. The task was undertaken smoothly and efficiently even from offline stations. The ground handling was also done at Indian Airports by the subsidiary of Air India viz. Air India Airport Services Ltd.

Such statements by the Aviation Minister despite the invaluable contribution serve no purpose but to demoralise employees.

The Coronavirus Pandemic presented numerous challenges before Air India pilots and cabin crew. They’ve been applauded as Corona warriors during evacuation and rescue flights. Are the same pilots now facing the threat of up to 5 years of LWP?

All employees, pilots and ground staff have risked their lives, we’ve contributed by serving passengers and operating cargo at airports. Even technical staff were handling Aircraft Equipment and were exposed to the Virus.

And now, all of us are under the threat of “Compulsory Leave’” which is illegal and demotivating. We have put our lives on the line, many of us tested positive for Covid19. Some of us have even lost their lives to the pandemic, in the line of duty. The Cabin crew which took on those evacuation and rescue flights, the ground staff and employees who continued to work through the pandemic, they were all at risk. And despite risking our lives, we’re now facing the worst kind of treatment. We don’t need the applause, we need our salaries. Is this how the government rewards ‘Corona warriors’? By wage cuts and 5 years of Leave Without Pay?

The forum has written to the Prime Minister thanking him for the recognition given to Air India employees and also about now being let down. What do you ask of the government?

The GoI is morally and legally bound to follow the Law of the Land which do not provide for Compulsory Leave and Wage Cut. Therefore we have demanded revocation of these two steps taken unilaterally and instead take mutually acceptable decisions in consultation with the Unions in terms of section 9A if ID Act,1947 to tide over the crises. All we want is our justified concerns to be addressed. We want an audience with the management. There’s a difference between voluntary LWP and forced compulsory LWP. The Prime Minister lauded our efforts during the pandemic, we want him to help us out of this crisis now.

How many of you stand to lose your source of livelihood as things stand?

The future is uncertain for all employees and there are considerable apprehensions in their minds. The industrial relations in the company is at its lowest ebb and the Management must engage with the Unions to ensure a workable Turn Around Plan. Surprisingly while promotions to all categories were denied, Executives gifted themselves with a large number of unjustified promotions during the pandemic. So while the majority of the workforce are constantly at risk of losing everything, the top-level bosses are unaffected.

The government says it has two options at the moment, either shut down the defunct airline or resort to controversial cost-cutting measures such as yearlong LWP. The second attempt at Disinvestment is underway, but do you feel there’s hope?

Shutting down the Airline is not an option which the GoI knows very well. We agree that some austerity measures are required but they should be taken with the consent of Unions as envisioned in the Law. In the present circumstances with the collapse of two major private Airlines and other private carriers incurring huge losses, AI is the only hope for Indian Aviation.

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