It seems that the PML-N government has still not realised that its actions vis-a-vis the strike action by PIA’s unions have the potential to lead it onto a path that it may eventually regret taking. The events that have swirled around the airline in the last 48 hours have been tragic at the human level and disastrous financially with the national carrier having ceased all domestic and international flights on February 3 as the strike by the unions entered a second day. There is still no confirmation regarding who fired the fatal shots on February 2 that killed three people protesting the government’s action to partially privatise the airline.
In the wake of the deaths, the PIA chairman has now resigned his post with immediate effect, taking responsibility for the violence. Undeterred by the extreme hostility of the unions, the prime minister has made a personal intervention saying that strikers would be punished with jail as they have flouted the Essential Services (Maintenance) Act 1952, and those that worked normally would be rewarded, though with what and under which ordinance was unclear. As is evident, the government and the unions are deeply entrenched with both sides carving bleeding chunks off an already-beached whale. What the employee unions completely fail to acknowledge is that PIA is desperately in need of reshaping. With over 19,000 employees (November 2015 figure) and over 700 employees per aircraft, it is simply unsustainable. With flight operations suspended, private airlines are now having a field day, and one of them promptly doubled the one-way fare between Karachi and Islamabad, rank profiteering if ever there was.
Notwithstanding the intransigence of the unions, the government now needs to realise that the invocation of the Essential Services legislation has backfired and that the PIA engineering division has the capacity — and probably the will — to keep all aircraft grounded for as long as it wants. Accusations from the government’s side that the strike is politically motivated are as yet unproven. Meanwhile, the travelling public suffers massive loss of utility; business suffers as does the national image internationally. All sides need to stand back, take a deep breath and stop butchering what ought to be a national asset. Common sense must prevail.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 4th, 2016.