If there is one man who played a major role to rejuvenate the Pakistan International Airlines’ (PIA) unions after seven years of restriction under Pervez Musharraf’s rule, then it has to be Captain Sohail Baluch, the six-foot-five tall former president of Pakistan Airlines Pilots’ Association (Palpa).
His immense bulky presence and heavy voice was enough to command respect even from unruly union activists. He was the driving force behind unprecedented union agitation, which led to removal of managing director Aijaz Haroon.
While pilots had always been dominant among various cadres, Palpa’s influence over the day-to-day affairs of PIA reached new heights under his leadership. Palpa also dominated the so-called apex body of unions – the Council of Employees of PIA.
But his recent defeat by a few votes in Palpa elections is set to change the course of labour movement, especially considering the role unions have come to play in desperately trying to avoid privatisation of the national flag carrier.
Palpa’s new President Captain Amir Hashmi indicated at the impending change. Asked to say if his association’s dominant role continues in the labour politics, he didn’t answer directly.
“Ah...well, as far as this question is concerned, I will rely on advice of my executive committee,” he said, speaking over phone. “Some of the union activity has defamed us and the entire community. My association with the airline comes first and then the union.”
He was also critical of the unions’ role in blocking disciplinary action against redundant workforce. “I cannot support an instance where more than required employees are sitting in a department and not doing anything.”
But he quickly offered defence of the high number of employees. “Salary expense makes up just 16% or 17% of the total cost (of airline). They can’t be blamed for everything.”
Like many others, he also insisted Aviation Advisor Shujaat Azeem has not said anything about selling the airline to private investors.
“They are actually trying to fix the problems. Lease of more planes is part of that restructuring effort,” he said, referring to efforts to induct more than a dozen new aircraft.
His words echo what everyone from Azeem, Aviation Secretary Muhammad Ali Gardezi to PIA Managing Director Junaid Yunus, have been saying all along since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif decided to sell 26% stake in the airline last year.
The unions and management, which have mostly been at loggerheads, have come together to cut losses through a series of initiatives.
Some of the proposals of a detail plan prepared by Palpa on cutting weight on aircraft, rationalise flight paths and bring down fuel expense have already been adopted.
This should be a good sign but time had already run out for them. Government has agreed with the International Monetary Fund to sell loss-incurring state-owned enterprises.
Conflicting signals which the management and aviation ministry have been sending out were reflected in frustration of Privatisation Commission Chairman Mohammad Zubair when a few days back he complained of not being kept in the loop.
Even as the airline reels under accumulated losses of over Rs150 billion, the unions have remained opposed to any salary cuts.
“We are already underpaid compared to pilots in other regional airlines,” said Hashmi, who is a senior pilot with 36 years of experience. “As a matter of fact, I wanted to leave but the management didn’t let me go. Why should I take a cut?”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 15th, 2015.
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