|Are pilots workers?|
|Saturday, 30 April 2011 00:00|
With each passing hour, as more Air India flights remain on the ground, it’s safe to say the striking pilots will enjoy less and less public sympathy. Apart from putting the flying public to great inconvenience—which is why the Delhi High Court asked the pilots to withdraw their strike and later issued contempt notices when they didn’t—the pilots would do well to consider the changed circumstances. At one time, Air India was the only show in town; today, its marketshare is down to 15% in the domestic market, and 25% of the ex-India market. While there is little doubt the strike is inconveniencing passengers, the government can still afford an Air India strike but will be badly affected by a Jet Airways strike. So the pilots’ bargaining power is that much less today. There is then the larger question as to whether pilots can be considered to be workmen, and therefore whether they have the right to strike. When the right to strike was first promulgated, this was seen as the only way a largely illiterate and immobile workforce could stand up to managements; none of this is true for well-paid pilots who are well-educated and quite mobile. And since pilots command the aircraft, giving them the right to strike is a bit like saying managers must have the right to strike!
That said, Air India’s top brass and more so the civil aviation ministry are very largely to blame for the current state of affairs. For one, when Air India had an equity of R145 crore, what was the government thinking when it got the airline to buy planes worth $11 bn—given that Air India would need to raise revenues 2-3 times just to service the debt, it was always obvious that its future was bleak. Similarly, had the government given Air India the go ahead to transfer half its staff to two new companies (for ground handling and engineering services), the airline’s financials wouldn’t have been as bad as they are today. To top it all, the aviation ministry decided it wanted to merge Indian Airlines and Air India, and paid little attention to the very serious issue of pay parity between the pilots of the two airlines, and how the Indian Airlines’ pilot salaries drop dramatically with the airline reducing their flying hours. Whether the grievance is justified or not, the issue has been simmering for years and the airline’s management—and that includes the aviation ministry that constantly indulges in back-seat flying—did nothing to address the problem. Despite this, ministry officials have the temerity to act surprised by the pilots striking work.