PIA: Hopefully some lessons learned


Joint Action Committee Pakistan International Airlines Employees (JACPIAE) called off the strike after 15 days of severe disruption in the national airlines flight schedule at a great cost to passengers/cargo clients as well as itself through loss of billions of rupees of revenue. And sadly the cost was infinitely higher for the families of the two who died during the protests. There were also reports of intimidation of those JACPIAE members who broke the strike notably Pakistan Air Lines Pilots Association (PALPA) as well as the police intimidating JACPIAE members from going to the protest venue.

The call to end the strike is being seen as the Prime Minister’s success in breaking the strike as he had refused to give in to JACPIAE demands until and unless the precondition of ending the strike was met. However, it has to be acknowledged that there was a pressure on the government to quickly resolve the matter as there was an imminent danger of a broadening of the crisis with nearly all opposition parties including the PPP, PTI and MQM expressing solidarity with the Joint Action Committee and committing to supporting them in protest.

Privatisation is traditionally opposed by workers unions all over the world and the grounds for this opposition is based on their concern that downsizing would be accompanied by following a policy of meritocracy that may cost the union a significant number of their members’ jobs.

What was unfortunately patently evident during the 15-day strike was the fact that the government delayed action other than that of using force, threats by federal ministers and intimidation to disband the strike. The Essential Service Maintenance Act 1952 outlawing the strike was imposed on 1st February almost a week after the strike began. In addition, the government had no ‘Plan B’ which caused billions of rupees revenue loss to PIA as well as to PIA’s passengers as a consequence of the strike.

An example of a successful handling of a strike is when Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organisation (PATCO) went on strike in the US in August, 1981 demanding better working conditions, better pay and a 32-hour workweek thereby violating a law that banned strikes by government unions. Ronald Reagan, the US President at the time, declared the PATCO strike a “peril to national safety” and ordered them back to work but only 1,300 of the nearly 13,000 controllers returned to work.

The President then warned those remaining on strike to return to work within 48 hours, or lose their jobs. Concurrently Transportation Secretary began organising replacements and started contingency plans including prioritising and cutting flights which enabled the government to have 50 percent of flights available; and began replacing non-participating controllers, supervisors, staff personnel, some non-rated personnel, and in some cases by controllers transferred temporarily from other facilities. Some military controllers were also used until replacements could be trained.

In marked contrast, the Pakistan government reportedly did not even successfully conclude negotiations with Air Blue (owned and successfully run for a decade by Federal Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Shahid Khaqan Abbasi) and Shaheen to accommodate PIA’s confirmed passengers.

Passengers outside the country were left stranded at airports with talk of a deal having been struck with Saudi and Turkish airlines that was never confirmed and eventually with the partial break-up of the strike, PIA flight crew did bring them back though only from Riyadh, with no one knowing how many passengers were stranded in other countries.

Needless to add, a more robust ‘Plan B’ would have included manning PIA aircraft with Air Force personnel and at the same time ensure flight paths were not overrun by protesters through appropriate law enforcement agencies.

One can only hope that valuable lessons have been learned by the government as it has a rather ambitious privatisation plan. To use those federal ministers for intimidating and warning the strikers who are not directly concerned with PIA or its affairs diminished the value of their defence. And one would hope that it has been brought home to the Prime Minister that he needs to appraise the performance of his colleagues in the cabinet, something that he had committed to do after assuming office and has not gotten around to doing.

Source: Business Recorder