The state-owned Air India’s leave without pay (LWP) scheme, as part of its cost cutting drive to tide over challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, has not gone down well with its employee bodies, which are now mulling over ways to challenge the move.
They said that while the “top bosses will remain protected”, the scheme, if implemented, will lead to the “victimisation of the staff,” including its pilots, service engineers, and ground staff among others.
On July 7, the airline’s board approved the LWP scheme for its permanent workforce, the period for which ranges from six months to five years. The scheme is voluntary in nature. However, in case of a satisfactory response not forthcoming from employees, it reportedly authorises the airline’s chairman and managing director to pass an order whereby employees – identified based on various factors including “suitability”, “efficiency” and “redundancy” among others – can be asked to go on leave.
The list of employees for both, those who opt for the scheme and those being forced to, needs to be prepared by the national airline’s regional and departmental heads by August 15.
Praveen Keerthi, general secretary of the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA), accused the Air India management of “not sharing the burden” caused by the COVID-19 crisis, forcing certain sections of employees to bear the brunt.
“The management must apply the scheme across the board. It wouldn’t be fair for one section of employees to be sent on leave, while top bosses and their salaries are protected,” he told NewsClick.
Vilas Girdhar of the All India Service Engineers Association, echoed similar concerns. “We do not object to the scheme as long as it operates on a voluntary basis. However, making it compulsory will naturally lead to the victimisation of the staff, many of whom some may get wrongfully judged and sent on leave in a punitive manner,” he said.
According to the staff notice sent on July 14, the employees identified to be sent on leave will not be entitled to basic or dearness allowances or any other benefits including pension, gratuity, provident fund and increment. These employees will also have to vacate staff quarters or rent it back at market prices from the airline, according to Business Standard.
There are over 11,000 employees on the airlines payroll (including its subsidiaries), of which only the minority, though substantive, are contractual employees. Moreover, the LWP scheme is also also being seen as part of a process to reduce employee strength ahead of the slated privatisation of the national carrier. The last date of bidding for Air India is August 31.
COVID-19 Triggers Rift Between Unions
In a joint letter dated July 6, earlier sent by the ICPA and Indian Pilot’s Guild (IPG), to Air India’s chairman Rajiv Bansal, the pilots’ bodies had suggested the airline “address its unviable employment policies and practices” to deal with the financial distress on account of the pandemic.
According to the two bodies, the human resource department and finance department accounted for more than 1600 employees – “excessive” staff for back-end operations, whose “trimming” could be considered to cut costs.
“We had suggested reduction in their strength and also ‘compulsory leave without pay’ for them, owing to the evident reduction in their workload due to limited operations at present,” Keerthi said.
The suggestions, however, lead to other employees’ bodies locking horns with the pilots’ association, who called the suggestions “thoughtless”.
“As the union representing the highest-paid category of employees in India you should have protected your own interests rather than suggesting unwarranted and unlawful cost-cutting measures affecting employees belonging to our category/unions,” said a counter letter by two other bodies – Aviation Industry Employees Guild and the aforementioned service engineers association.
The rift between the two groups continues even as unions are now looking for ways to challenge the July 14 staff notice, which mandates leave without pay. The joint forum of Air India unions and associations – a coming together of fourteen employees’ unions active in the airline and its subsidiaries – is holding talks. The two pilots’ association bodies have opted out of the deliberations so far.
“The scheme does not adhere to labour provisions which applies to Air India employees as well. Legal opinion is currently being sought to challenge it in court,” said Girdhar, while pointing to the alleged flouting of Section 9A of Industrial Disputes Act, which requires a 21-day notice to be issued before a change of work-related conditions.
According to Girdhar, no such notice was issued before the approval of the LWP scheme.
Similarly, Keerthi of ICPA said: “Though we are not participating in the talks held by the joint forum, a decision will be taken (with regards to the LWP scheme) in the coming days.”
In March, Air India had announced that it had decided to cut salaries of all employees by 10 per cent for three months – a move which also drew ire for being against the Centre’s directive of not cutting wages of laying off employees amid the COVID-19 lockdown.