Air transport workers are fighting to defend their jobs and against further privatisation in the aviation sector. Jobs and salary cuts have affected every section of the working-class in the sector since May.
From cargo handlers to ticketing officers, and flight attendants to pilots, workers are being made to pay for decline in the employers’ profits. And of the six government agencies in the sector, only two have implemented the national minimum wage and salaries reviews a year after this came into force.
While the bosses complain that they have no choice but to take these anti-workers steps, because it will take time for business to pick up due to the pandemic, they can still see money to be made from the management of the main international airports!
These are in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano. Concession is just a form of privatisation. Government will allow the private businesses they choose to manage the airports to make money which could have been added revenue for government.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has had adverse impact on aviation. There was a sharp decline in flights, particularly during the lockdown. But the problem is far deeper than just the effect of COVID-19. In a joint press conference organised by ATSSAN, ANAP & NUATE, which are three of the major unions in the sector, they pointed out that “aviation is in an emergency”. They also showed some of the deep-rooted reasons for this.
Over the last decade, jobs and income insecurity have become the norm for aviation workers. Negotiations for conditions of service for workers in four aviation agencies (NAMA, FAAN, NIMET & NCAA) which were negotiated seven years ago have been frustrated by the approving ministries.
Casual labour is common practice. More than three quarters of the workers are on fixed term contracts. And these are mainly through labour contractors. So, they are paid peanuts, hardly ever enjoy promotion, lack health insurance, and can be easily sacked.
To maintain this mean state of affairs, most of the airlines in particular, have refused to allow workers to belong to any trade union. These include: Air Peace, Azman Air, Dana Air, Max Air, ExecuJet, Jed Air, Skypower Airlines, Med-View Airlines. Several workers who have joined the union at different times have been sacked.
Workers in airlines and other companies in the sector that have fought for and won the right to unionise have better working conditions. But they also face attacks by the employers in several ways. Workers in a number of unionised companies such as NAHCO, SAHCO in cargo handling and Aero-contractors, a leading airline have had to go on strike over poor working conditions several times over the last four years.
With COVID-19 an already terrible situation become worse. The companies have called back barely a quarter of their workforce after the lockdown. And these are being paid just a fraction of their already inadequate salaries. Every cadre of staff has been affected. Air Peace for example announced the sacking of over 70 of its pilots.
Some of these were called back only after the pilots and unions outcry was echoed by the minister of aviation. But the most affected workers are the outsourced workers. They are denied the right to belong to a union and their conditions of employment make sacking them very easy.
The unions are however not taking things lying low. In an interview with Socialist Worker, Comrade Frances Akinjole, Deputy General Secretary of ATSSSAN informed that “we and the other unions in the sector are demanding the protection of the pay and employment of all aviation workers. We are mobilising for a series of strikes to make sure the bosses do this.”
At the heart of the problem workers are facing in the aviation sector is the problem that workers face everywhere in the capitalist economy. The bosses’ primary commitment is to make as much profits as they can make. N198.62bn was generated as revenue in the sector last year alone. A significant amount of this was profit.
Major shareholders, CEOs and top management staff of aviation companies walk away with tens of millions of naira every year. They, and not the workers who earn barely enough to feed and pay their bills should be the ones to bear the burden of downturn in business. They can afford it, the poor workers cannot.
That is why the unions are demanding caps on profit levels and shareholder rewards as well as an end to the era of “excessive executive pay”. These can be done only when workers have a direct say in how the companies are run. ATSSSAN, ANAP & NUATE are also calling for democratisation of ownership and governance, including having worker representation on the company board.
These are far-reaching demands which can be won with concerted and undeterred struggle. But they are not enough. The rank and file worker must always be at the fore of working-class politics and practice. Worker representatives on boards of companies must report back regularly to the membership and act on these boards only with mandates of rank and file workers on all issues of concern.
Democratisation of governance of the aviation sector, which is rooted in rank and file workers’ mandate, is crucial to curtail the unilateralism of management, that the unions also bemoan. Decisions, including those that bear on workplace safety and health are being taken without recourse to the concerns of workers, at the moment.
Reopening of the airports for example, has been done without employers putting “all the COVID-19 protocols for the aviation workplace” in place, “especially outside the airport terminals.” The unions have thus demanded that bi-partite occupational safety and health committees are established. It is illegal for companies to avoid constituting these committees as they are enshrined in the country’s labour laws as well as international labour standards.
SWL fully supports the aviation workers and their unions in the struggle against workers layoffs, wage cuts, terrible working conditions and concession of airports. ATSSSAN, NUATE, ANAP & NAAPE must be resolute in taking this fight to the logical conclusion of victory for aviation workers.
by Segun OGUN