The workers of Air India — pilots, engineers, ground staff and cabin crew have been waging a protracted struggle against the anti worker policies of the Air India management and Civil Aviation Ministry. One of the biggest attacks on these workers has been the nonpayment of wages for months on end. This has forced the workers of Air India to go on strike or refrain from duty numerous times over the past nearly two years. In the course of these struggles, the workers of Air India have increasingly realized the necessity to forge unity of different sections of workers of Air India. They have recognized that the problems of different sections of workers are substantially the same. They have come to the conclusion that they need to fight unitedly the anti worker, anti national policy of the government which is working overtime to liquidate the company as a prelude to privatization.
The Joint Forum of Air India Employees consisting of eight unions, representing a cross-section of staffers ranging from pilots, cabin crew, engineers and ground staff, wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh end March, saying they would implement 'No pay no work' policy from April 2 as the management was "withholding" their "legitimate wages" for over five months. The Indian Pilots Guild, Air India Officers Association, Air India Engineers Association and Air India Aircraft Engineers Association are part of the Joint Forum which was formed in June 2011 in the course of the struggle against the government’s anti-worker moves.
Following the government’s promise to clear all dues by June, the Joint Forum has decided to temporarily avoid strike action. At the same time, aware of the history of false promises of the Air India Management and the government, the workers and their unions are keeping the pressure on the management and government in support of their demands. In the meanwhile, about a hundred contractual ground-handling staff of Air India, in Mumbai, did not report for work on April 5, to protest non-payment of their two months' salary dues. It was only in response to this strike action that delayed some international flights that the Air India management committed to make arrangements for payment of these workers’ dues.
The AI management and government have claimed that there is no money to pay the wages of employees. It has been several months since the government has been promising to come up with a plan for the turnaround of the Corporation. It has taken more than nine months since the setting up a panel by the government for this purpose for the banks to approve a restructuring plan! Meanwhile, the employees and their families have faced extreme insecurity, a deterioration of their living conditions, mounting debts which they have been forced to default on. And after all this, the Civil Aviation Minister has no shame in claiming that the government has "stood by them before and would continue to do so” and "let's hope they (the employees) will realise that the government is doing all it can." He is further reported to have said that “even the employees realise that they are better off than employees of other airlines".
Mazdoor Ekta Lehar condemns this extremely callous, anti-worker attitude of the government and AI management. Non-payment of wages and dues of employees across the board has been one of the ways that workers of Air India have been continuously attacked for the past nearly two years. The other method of attacking the workers has been to keep them divided as employees of erstwhile Air India and erstwhile Indian Airlines, differentiating between them on the wages and conditions of their work. Yet another has been to keep hundreds of workers as casual workers over more than 20 years. The management claims that it does not have adequate funds to regularize their services. The insecurity of these casual workers has been intensified with more and more work being outsourced to contractors leading to thousands of them being thrown out.
The workers have responded to these attacks with strike calls, staying away from work, and militant demonstrations, as was witnessed in Chennai in February this year. As the financial restructuring plan gets underway and the banks lend to AI Corporation, it is expected that the government will use this situation to move on its plans to privatize Air India. The report of the panel to the Group of Ministers had clearly recommended that once Air India has been able to “turnaround”, divesting the airline to a strategic partner could be considered.
The workers have to be even more vigilant in the coming months. It has been the repeated and consistent struggles of the employees to expose and oppose the privatization plans of the government that has delayed this step so far. They have to continue to press for their demands for prompt payment of their wages and all allowances, for regularization of contract workers and for uniform wage policy. All the workers – pilots, cabin crew, engineers, ground staff, etc. must unite across the country to fight the anti-worker policy of the management and the government.
Mazdoor Ekta Lehar extends its full support to the workers of Air India in their just struggle.