Unions often spell trouble. In India’s public sector they ensured the doom of once profitable companies. Now the disease has spread to the private sector. The country’s laws and politicians have fuelled the problem. Jet Airways had a taste of it late on Tuesday when at least half of its 760 pilots called in “sick”.
The result was that on Wednesday at least 200 flights were cancelled. Some 14,000 passengers were affected. Many airports witnessed chaotic scenes.
By one account, the problem began after Jet sacked two pilots who were trying to get their nascent union recognized. Aviation companies are jittery about such moves, as the sector is facing financial turbulence. Private airlines have tried to reduce their staff strength in the past to meet the challenges of a slowdown in the economy that has affected them. They have been unsuccessful in this. A pilots’ union can only spell trouble on this count.
Pilots, as a class of employees, are relatively well paid. Compared with persons with other work profiles, who are often paid much less than them, they have little to complain. Yet, pilot unionism and unreasonable demands are a phenomenon that cuts across the public-private sector divide. At one level, they understand that without them airlines can’t fly planes. It’s as simple as that. That is the source of their unreasonableness. Other employees can be replaced overnight in case they create trouble. But no airline can find a pilot with 2,000 hours of flying experience in 24 hours. Other features of such problems, such as the expatriate pilots versus local pilots tussle, can also be attributed to this feature.
If that is not enough, the political climate in India abets such behaviour. Within 24 hours of the strike, both the Left and the Bharatiya Janata Party had come in support of the strike and the right of the pilots to form a union. The Indian Express reported on Thursday that pilots are defined as “workmen” and are covered by the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. Now the government is trying to exclude them from the definition of workmen. India perhaps is the only economy of its size that is still mired in such laws and one that does little about it. It is time India discarded such retrograde laws that do more harm than good to its economy.
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