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British Airways layoffs shake confidence in UK job protection program

Stephen Beard Aug 25, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
A British Airways plane lands at Heathrow in London. The airline's cost-cutting agenda is stirring resistance. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

British Airways layoffs shake confidence in UK job protection program

Stephen Beard Aug 25, 2020
A British Airways plane lands at Heathrow in London. The airline's cost-cutting agenda is stirring resistance. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

British Airways — which once dubbed itself the “world’s favorite airline” —  is not popular with many of its own employees right now. In common with many other carriers around the world, BA has been hit hard by the pandemic and, faced with huge losses, has decided to lay off permanently more than a quarter of its 42,000-strong workforce and cut the pay of many remaining staff members. The company says it’s had to make difficult decisions to protect as many jobs as possible. But many of the affected workers, and their labor union, describe the move as a “betrayal.”

BA workers protest by bus. (Courtesy Unite the Union)

“BA! No way! BA! No way!” was the chant crackling over a bullhorn from an open-top bus as it headed toward London’s Heathrow Airport last week for a mini-protest rally. On board, half a dozen BA flight attendants and ground crew vented their anger against the airline.

“We’re going to be on the lowest pay, the lowest terms and conditions if British Airways get their way,” one middle-aged employee shouted. “I say: No way BA! You’re an absolute disgrace.”  

The protesting staff wore surgical face masks. And not just because of COVID-19. They said that if they’d revealed their identities, BA would penalize them further.

“They’re threatening my job. My job’s on the line. It’s absolutely unacceptable,” said one man, who maintained that in spite of his 37 years of “loyal service” as a flight attendant, he will suffer a catastrophic hit if BA’s proposed new terms and conditions come into effect.

“Financially, it means a huge drop in my salary. I have a wife and a young family to support,” he said. “It means my house is on the line. I may have to sell my house and move. The car will have to go. So it’s a financial burden and stress on myself at the moment.”

Another flight attendant — a single parent — said that she would have to give up the job she loves because the proposed pay cut would mean that she could no longer afford child care for her 10-year-old daughter.

Under BA’s restructuring plan, the lowest-paid 40% of staff will get a small raise. But the rest face a cut of at least 20%, and some long-serving workers could lose half their current pay. More than 10,000 jobs will go altogether,  the whole package incurring the wrath of one of Britain’s biggest labor unions. 

“It’s without any empathy for individuals,” said Howard Beckett, assistant general secretary of Unite the Union. (Courtesy Howard Beckett)

“It’s brutal. It’s without any empathy for individuals. It’s completely without respect for the levels of service that our members have given to British Airways,” said Howard Beckett, assistant general secretary of the British labor union Unite. Beckett pointed out that throughout the pandemic, the taxpayer-funded furlough — or job retention — program has paid the wages of much of BA’s workforce; the job cuts, he said, are a betrayal.

“That’s not what the taxpayer understood the job retention scheme to be about. And it’s certainly not what it was intended to be about. The clue is in the title. It’s intended to be a job retention scheme,” Beckett said.

But British Airways says the criticism flies in the face of reality. Since the start of the pandemic, the airline has flown at barely 5% of its normal capacity. In a statement to Marketplace, the company said its latest financial results clearly showed the enormous impact of the crisis: a loss of more than U.S. $1 billion and continuing losses of $26 million a day. Willie Walsh, the boss of BA’s parent company, told the BBC that BA must adapt to survive.

“I think this is by far the biggest crisis we have ever faced and clearly requires us to take very quick and deep action not just to survive this but to ensure that we will be in a competitive position going forward,” Walsh said.

The carrier’s profits depend heavily on its international routes — especially across the Atlantic — and also on business-class passengers. Both have been severely affected by COVID-19. Travel restrictions in the U.S. and the U.K. and the recent growth of videoconferencing have hit revenue hard. Aviation consultant John Strickland said BA’s drastic action is justified.

“I think the airline is looking into the abyss,” said aviation consultant John Strickland. (Courtesy BBC)

“I think the airline is looking into the abyss, and it realizes that it has no choice but to take radical action now. Not just to lay people off temporarily or cut capacity temporarily, but it needs to make structural changes and improve its efficiency for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Strickland, who wrote a recent article for Forbes magazine about the dispute, said BA’s proposed job cuts were not even the worst in the global airline industry.

“We have Lufthansa in Germany talking about over 20,000 people and we have United in the U.S. sending out potential redundancy notices to half its workforce — in other words about 36,000 people,” Strickland said. “So the numbers across the industry — not BA alone — are huge.”      

But none of this will lessen the anger and dismay of BA’s aggrieved workers. They argue that any job cuts and changes in their terms and conditions should not be permanent; they should last only so long as it takes for the airline industry to recover from the effects of the pandemic. The Unite union is threatening industrial action.

And this disaffection could ripple out across the U.K. When the taxpayer-funded furlough scheme ends in the fall, many tens of thousands of jobs in other industries seem set to disappear. A new era of labor unrest in Britain  could be dawning.  

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