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'We want dignity and not money'

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

Sam Thomas

If your office gets taken over by foreigners, what do you do? Captain Sam Thomas, joint secretary, National Aviators’ Guild (NAG), who was sacked by Jet Airways for forming a union of pilots, asks Sreelatha Menon

Why didn’t you accept the offer by Jet Airways and go back to work?
The offer by the management had a condition that we should dissolve the NAG. They said if anyone filed a case against the NAG, we should not challenge it. This will lead to the dissolution of the body. We can’t accept that.

Pilots are highly paid, about Rs 600,000 a month, which makes wonder why they should want to form a union or a guild. You are hardly workers in that sense.
If highly paid are not workers and can’t form unions, the Constitution of India should mention it. We don’t cease to have the right to form unions just because we are highly paid. Tell me, if all journalists are paid Rs 600,000 a month and asked to do domestic work, would you not form a union and fight for your rights?

But why did you form a union now?

We had a good association for the last ten years. We also have the Society for Welfare of Indian Pilots. But the expatriate management from the Arab countries is not used to workers having any rights. They are used to Indians coming to their countries and working like slaves. The association and the management had several agreements on working conditions but the expatriate management is going back on most of them.

What is the proportion of expatriates in the management?
Our management is completely expatriate. Our CEO is from Australia, the COO is from Bahrain, two top officials are from Ireland, while another is from Australia.

What was the immediate provocation?
There were many provocations during the last two years. The latest was regarding our career progression and promotions. No promotions were happening and all our allowances were cut. We understood that it was because of the recession. But if you are cutting our allowances, you can’t hire foreigners at double salaries. The foreign management was making Indians wait indefinitely for promotions. If your office gets taken over by foreigners, what do you do? We want dignity and not money. Money can’t be a substitute for dignity.

Is that why you wanted a union now?
They said without a union, you did not have any rights. So, we said we would form a union. Now, they want it dissolved.

The government and the public feel that you have wronged the passengers by going on strike.
The needs of the public are our prime concern. In fact, one of the agreements we have with the management is concerning flight safety and it is being flouted. There is a regulation that pilots can work only for a certain number of hours. But the management influences the DGCA (Director General of Civil Aviation) to subvert these conditions. Doesn’t that compromise flight safety? Recently, when two pilots fell asleep, what was the public reaction? What do you think happened to them?

It could be a party hangover.
I don’t blame the perception. We don’t want to change it. But pilots know that if they are drunk, they will be the first to die. So, pilots will never do such a thing unless they want to die. The truth was that those pilots were fatigued as they had not slept the previous night.

There are unions at all levels in your company. So, why did you want a cadre-based union rather than be a part of a recognised union? Trade unions say your cause or your strike would have got more support if you had done that.
Unions are not made for strikes. When we made a pilots’ union, the last thing we wanted was to go on strike. We are as much concerned about our responsibility to the public as anyone. For instance, if the loaders’ union was with us, we would have got support from an additional 10,000 But will they understand flight safety? That is why pilots need their own union. We have not asked for any pay hike for the last six years. And in this case too it was not money.

Don’t pilots in other countries have unions?
Of course they do. Every country has multiple unions for pilots.

Have pilots in foreign aviation companies like Lufthansa ever gone on strike?
They do go on strike. No one questions them. In our own country, pilots of Indian Airlines and Air India have unions.

This resistance to having unions is pointed out as a trend among private companies and as a sign of globalisation. Even companies that have unions in their own countries don’t want them in India. Do you agree?
Look at private aviation companies in India other than Jet. None of them allows formation of unions. Privatisation is one thing but what about the benefits they want from the government and from the employees? Their argument is that pilots can’t go on strike as they earn high salaries, that they are not workers. But how do you explain the fact that our bosses, who earn a thousand times more than us, formed federations and were bullying the government for financial aid just a few weeks ago?

The government feels that you are workmen under the law and you have the right to form a union. But it also feels that you have no right to go on strike when the conciliation process is on. You should have gone to the labour commissioner instead?
I know what the idea is. The management will find a legal way to keep us down. They will say that the talks are on but the next hearing will be after three months and the subsequent one after five months. So, we will keep flying as we cannot strike work when the talks are on.

But that is how it is. You can’t go on strike.
Ok . But who says we are on strike? We are not on strike. All of a sudden, 400 people can fall ill due to food poisoning. We can get medical certificates to prove our illness.

First Published: Sun, September 13 2009. 00:59 IST