Air India pilots strike entered 48th day, with chain hunger strike in Delhi and Mumbai. Following sacking of more than 100 colleagues by the adamant management and derecognizing of their union, Indian Pilots’ Guild (IPG), more than 440 pilots have been on strike from May 2012, demanding resolution of various issues including regular payment of their salaries, and parity in career progression.
The Pilots have been asserting again and again that they are ready to join work if all the pilots that have been sacked are reinstated and the union re-recognised. The management and the government has been playing tactic of waiting and tiring out the pilots, and blaming the pilots for the accumulated losses.
The government and management has been deliberately spreading disinformation regarding the demands, working conditions and salaries and other entitlements of the pilots, to isolate pilots from other working people. The IPG has brought out a leaflet highlighting the reason behind their struggle and strike – why they are on hunger strike, why they are not joining work, why the strike has stretched to 50 days, on the legality of the strike, and their attitude and concern towards the passengers.
Addressing the press Captain Aditya Singh Dhillon of IPG said "Keeping aside all other issues, we are just demanding that the government should reinstate the 101 sacked pilots and restore recognition of IPG." He said that the Civil Aviation Ministry never approached the IPG and dealt with the demands of the pilots concerned. The Ministry was trying to impose on the striking pilots the Dharmadhikari panel report which was completely biased.
Another IPG leader said, "A myth has been spread that we are highest-paid employees. We will try to correct that by showing to the people our salary slips that we are not being paid astronomical amounts as is being spread."
The pilots asserted that going on strike is their RIGHT, since the management has refused to resolve their issues for a long time through discussion and they are fighting the tanashahi of the Air India management. They had no other recourse than going on hunger strike.
Members of Lok Raj Sanghathan (LRS) met the striking pilots at Jantar Mantar in Delhi and spoke to Indian Pilots Guild union spokesman Tauseef Mukadam. They also interacted with number of pilots on issues facing them, their working conditions and their plans. The LRS team expressed solidarity with the striking pilots and committed to spread the correct information to all sections of people.
Long pending issues
The pilots said that there are number of issues that the management refuses to resolve through discussion and has been taking unilateral decisions violating the contract terms and service rules, including those related to salaries, promotions. They have been active in trying to break the unity of various employees of Air India, by setting one against the other. The pilots have been demanding that these issues be resolved through discussion and negotiation. But the management has been violating the contract terms and agreements. The management is responsible for the present crisis and the mess that the airline finds itself.
Pilots have not been paid salaries for more than past 6 months, but they still kept working. This has been going on for past 18 months, with salaries being deferred for months and then paid in trenches. Many of them are unable to fulfill their monthly commitments towards their families, including payment of children fees, home loans, education loans, etc, since the salaries have not come. Banks have refused o give loan to some of the pilots since they were unable to produce salary slips for past 3 months.
Even under such conditions when they were called upon to fly evacuation flights to trouble torn areas in Libya and Egypt, and Tokyo during the massive earth quake that hit Japan in 2010, the pilots fulfilled their duties.
Working conditions of pilots
Pilots said their working conditions are extremely difficult and the flight schedules adversely affects their health as their body had to readjust to different time zones for long haul international flights. It is a high stress job, where the life of passengers and crew is completely dependent on their mental and physical condition. The management has been continuously cutting their perquisites, which are mandatory for their physical and mental wellbeing to ensure safe flight – like adequate rest and time to align to new schedule, physical exercise, etc. Besides being a pilot is not easy. They have to undergo nearly 10 tests/ exams every year to remain updated on knowledge and qualify to continue to fly, besides remaining physically and mentally fit.
With the proposed merging of two Airlines – Indian Airlines and Air India, their career growth will be adversely affected, due to faulty HR policy of the management.
They are frequently made to fly over high ultra-violet radiation zones near the north-pole region, more frequently than what is permissible as per international standards. Further no measurements are done to estimate the level of radiation absorbed by the pilots. In fact foreign pilots refuse to fly in those zones beyond the permitted frequency.
While the salaries they get look high, but they cannot compensate for the loss of health. Besides they have to pay 33% tax on their salaries. On an average another 20% of the salaries go towards repaying the loans they take for getting pilot license.
Lack of accountability on part of management and government
Pilots expressed serious concern about lack of accountability on part of the management. While the pilots have been doing their duty, flying aircrafts as per schedules under adverse conditions, ensuring passenger safety, keeping the company going despite not getting salary, the management has been utterly mismanaging the airline, incurring expenses on travel by minister and bureaucrats, sponsoring film and sporting events, while claiming that airline is making losses. Various ministries including Presidents’ and Prime Ministers’ office owe thousands of crores of rupees to the airline, which continues to rise without any accountability, while the pilots are being blamed for demanding their salaries on time and parity in career progression.
Future course of struggle
Pilots said that there were many attempts by the management including victimization, threat of sacking and hiring new pilots and recruiting expat-pilots. But this did not affect their resolve to fight for their rights. The pilots said that it is laughable hear such suggestion. This may fool some ordinary people and passenger. But to train a new team of pilots takes enormous amount of time and resources and cannot be done overnight. If the management is ready to invest in new pilots, why it is not fulfilling its responsibility towards the present pilots, who have kept the airline functioning.
Although some of them had earlier got offers from foreign airlines, they said that it is their right to work in their own country. One young pilot said “Air India is a public sector enterprise. How can the government hire foreign pilots, when there are trained and skilled pilots in our own country? These pilots are demanding their rights to, so that they can serve with dignity, pride and commitment and ensure safety of passenger and airline.”