The crisis that hit the aviation industry over the past five years has had its inevitable consequence. The workers in this sector face massive insecurity. From pilots to trainee pilots, cabin crew to trainee cabin crew, as well as the technical workers on ground and other ground workers, the livelihood of workers is under severe attack.
With the crash of Kingfisher, there are now five airlines left — Air India, Jet Airways, Spice Jet, Indigo, and Go-air. Between them, these airlines operate most of the routes within the country, as well as have a share of the international traffic to and fro India in competition with foreign airlines.
Across the airline industry, workers from pilots, cabin crew members, to engineering and ground staff are being forced to work without wages. The backlog of wages extends from 3 months to 6 months, and in the case of Kingfisher, the workers have been left completely high and dry.
Take the case of commercial airline pilots. Piloting a plane is a highly skilled job which requires rigorous training that is expensive. What is the situation of pilots and pilot trainees today? Roughly 5000 pilots are employed. This includes commanders and copilots. It also includes about 340 highly paid foreign commanders.
There are an estimated 12,000 unemployed commercial pilot license (CPL) holders in the country trained by the 32 recognized flying schools in the country as well as such schools in foreign countries. This number has increased from 6000 three years ago. There are many flying schools wherein no one has got a job as a copilot. The parents of these youth have invested 25-35 lakh of rupees for a 1 and half year course in flying. These parents include bus drivers, train drivers, school teachers and army men. They have taken huge loans from banks, which they are not able to repay now. These youth hoped for a starting salary, including allowances, of Rs 2 lakh a month as a copilot. Now their dream has been shattered. Many of them took up flying as a career option immediately after school, and have not had college education. They have to take up work in jobs they have not been trained for. They are unable to pay back the loans they have taken for this costly experience.
As far as the pilots with jobs are concerned, they too are at a dead end. Kingfisher airlines is shut down. Over 500 pilots, as well as over a thousand cabin crew have lost their jobs. They have approached the courts for their pending unpaid wages. Air India, one of the biggest employers, is planning to cut down wages as per the recommendations of the Dharmadhikari Committee. It has refused to take back the leaders of the Indian Pilots Guild (IPG) who had organized the strike last May. Pilots of Air India belonging to the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA) have threatened a strike for recovering their wages.
Thousands of cabin crew workers and trainees, who invested lakhs in their education, are out of work. The average wages of a cabin crew worker is Rs 25,000 a month. There are stringent conditions on the physical fitness of cabin crew members, and premium is put by the employers on youth and appearance, especially the women. This ensures that most of them cannot work beyond the age of 30-35. And for this their families have invested their lifetime savings as well as taken un-repayable loans.
Air India has now begun to employ contract labour as cabin crew, to put pressure on cabin crew workers to not resist attacks on their livelihood and their rights. In the beginning of February, several cabin crew members flying on international flights were de-rostered for refusing to fly with contract cabin crew.
Engineering and other ground staff
Part of the privatization plan of the government has been to separate these profit making departments and privatize them. This is already in operation in several airports in India, through the medium of a company established by Air India in collaboration with Singapore Airlines.
The conditions of ground staff — engineering as well as other support staff, — are also extremely precarious.
Air India's Engineering maintenance and other ground handling workers are the biggest group of engineers and other ground staff working in the different airports of India, as compared to other airlines. They were providing services for other carriers, both Indian and foreign, and earning profits for Air India. As part of the "turn around strategy" adopted by the government to allegedly make Air India once again profitable, the ground handling and maintenance repair and overhaul was constituted as a separate company.
Engineering, maintenance and other ground workers have openly opposed and exposed this move. They have declared that they will not report to these new subsidiary companies.
Why have the workers opposed it? After all, they have been promised same pay and working conditions in the new subsidiaries?
The reason is that the workers know what the aim of the government is. The CCEA had declared that the wage bill of these workers would be reduced by Rs 1000 crores. How can the wage bill be reduced, without sacking workers, or replacing them with contract workers working overtime for minimum wages? According to Air India officials, operationalisation of the two subsidiaries would bring down the aircraft–employee ratio in Air India to global standards; that is, reduce the work force.
The experience of the workers of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad airports employed by the Airports Authority of India following privatization of these and other airports, proves this. These workers retained their jobs for only three years. Younger workers suffered. The private operators of these two airports are only interested in maximum profits.
The problem is faced by the ground and engineering staff of private airlines as well.
Jet Airlines is one of the biggest airlines in India, which has been reporting losses recently. Using the new policy of foreign investment in airlines, it is reportedly striking a sale agreement of 24%of its equity to Etihad Airlines, a West Asian airline. Simultaneously, it is attacking the wages and working conditions of its workers.
Technicians of Jet Airways are preparing to oppose a move to freeze salary hike as part of the sale to Etihad. Pilots of this Airline too are meeting to decide their stand. It must be remembered that a couple of years ago, when Naresh Goyal the promoter of Jet, sacked hundreds of air hostesses, it became a national issue. Temporarily, Goyal withdrew the sacking, only to implement it in stages. Workers of Jet fear correctly that they will be the target of the Jet-Etihad deal to bail out Goyal.
What do these things reveal? They reveal that capitalism is destructive. Capitalism goes from one crisis to another, and it is workers who are always at the receiving end of the stick. In recent times, because of increases in certain input costs, cut-throat competition and corrupt management that have squeezed the company dry to amass wealth, several airlines have been incurring a loss. Capitalists who own these airlines are doing their best to ensure that the policies of the government will enable them to recover and make maximum profits once again. It is the working class that is left to bear the burden of the loss.
Therefore, workers across the airline industry have to unite and organize themselves in defence of their right to security of livelihood. They have to wage the struggle with the aim that we must seize political power and reorient the economy to satisfy the growing needs of the present and future generations of workers and working people, and not the narrow need for maximum profits of the capitalist class.