On the morning of 28th May, when the correspondent of the Mazdoor Ekta Lehar went to the Air India Corporation Employees Union office located at the Indira Gandhi Air India terminal (Domestic), he found the door sealed with three locks. The employees who were around were so terrorized by the Management that they refused to divulge the whereabouts of the Union officials. After some time, the Joint Secretary of the Union, Shri Anand Prakash sent someone to fetch us and our correspondent was able to talk to him.
Mazdoor Ekta Lehar (MEL): Why did you decide to go on the strike?
Anand Prakash (AP): We workers have only one final weapon to get the management and the government to look at our grievances and demands. Every one of the employees of Air India wants the company to do well. The company provides the means of our livelihood. It not only feeds us but it feeds our family members too.
MEL: Was the main reason for this strike the refusal by the employees to accept the dictate of the company that the employees should not have given their opinion about the Mangalore tragedy?
AP: The fact is that the Mangalore tragedy was the result of mistakes by the company management. As you know, management wants to hide its mistakes and for every tragedy and mishap it blames the workers. Our leaders are being victimized by the management for talking to the media under the pretext that it would hurt the sentiments of those who had lost their near and dear ones. Yes, this is the reason why we were forced to go on strike now.
MEL: Management blames the workers for the flight delays. How far is this justified?
AP: The main reason for the delay of flights is the shortage of cabin crewmembers. It is certainly not their unwillingness to work. We earn our livelihood by serving the passengers. The problem is that they are simply not hiring new workers and there is a severe shortage of workers.
MEL: Are there other issues that are bothering the workers?
AP: There are many issues. For example, workers are harassed to acquiesce into hiding the mistakes of the Management. They are threatened and their overtime money is withheld if they don’t cooperate.
MEL: Since when is this going on?
AP: This has particularly increased since the merger of Air India and Indian Airlines. Air India was making a heavy loss for which their Management was fully responsible. After the merger the burden of the loss came on Indian Airlines also. Management started to say that the reason for the loss was the workers. We workers were against the merger from the beginning. Recently the Parliamentary Committee on Air India-Indian Airlines merger has proposed to punish those responsible for Air India's losses.
MEL: If that is the case, then is the Management acting in the same way as it acted with Air India before the merger?
AP: The Management is working hard in this direction that losses should mount beyond a level. A private company called SATS has been given the contract for ground handling for Rs. 200 Crore. It is worth noting that none of the four private airlines are taking the services of this company. Secondly, there were a lot of skilled workers for ground handling and Indian Airlines used to compensate for any losses in the past by using the ground handling staff to service other airlines. Now we are paying for these services instead of earning, so it is natural that there will be losses. We have to pay Rs. 100 Crore to Air India for these services now.
Another issue is that Air India needed to augment its fleet with 24 new planes. The Management asked for a fleet of 68 new planes. Our earnings are Rs. 6000 Crore while our installments are Rs. 7000 Crore. Will we not run in a loss? There are hefty commissions that the management receives in such arbitrary decisions. When the workers expose such steps that are against the interest of the company and other scams then the Management attacks the workers and their organisations.
MEL: Why should the Management take such decisions?
AP: The fact is that the Management is trying to hand over the company to some private airlines at a throwaway price. You will recall that the same was done to the profit making public sector company Modern Food Industries when it was sold to the multinational company Hindustan Levers. The government is pushing similar plans. Look at the privatization of the Delhi and Mumbai airports. The majority share holding multinational companies, which took over these airports were driven by the prospects of making a huge profit by looting the public treasury in terms of taking over the huge land and other resources of Airport Authority of India. See what is the result of the airport privatization; each passenger has to pay Rs. 300 for UDF, Rs. 250 for PSF and Rs. 250 for other charges, yet there are hardly any facilities for drinking water or public conveniences to be seen in these airports.
MEL: Are you going to fight against privatization?
AP: We have been against privatization right from the beginning and we will continue to oppose it. This company was started in 1953 with Rs. 200 Crore of public funds. Today its assets run into Rs. 50,000 Crore. This increase has been possible by the labour of the workers and belongs to the public. We are totally against these assets being handed over to some private company. We will fight tooth and nail against any move towards privatization.