Monday, October 18, 2021

Return Of The Maharaja: Will Air India’s Takeover By Tatas End Problems Of Airline’s Employees?

“Promotions were often delayed. Inter-departmental transfers meant starting from scratch. And there was periodic delay in salaries. Overall, the sentiment was unnerving,” says a recently retired employee of Air India, requesting anonymity.   

Will things look up for India’s national carrier after the recent ownership change? Sentiments vary. Many hailed the government’s move to disinvest from Air India, with the troubled airline going back to its original owners. “Since the pandemic struck, we were handed a 60 per cent pay cut. Even before that, over seven years, our salaries were being slashed regularly,” says an AI flight commander. She expresses concern over whether they will receive the promised arrears by December. “Tata is known for its employee-friendly policies, but isn’t a great paymaster. Will I ever earn as much as my global counterparts?”  

There is a glimmer of hope, though. “Privatisation will certainly bring in more efficiency, though what exact changes happen remain to be seen. Whether perks like medical bills and passages (free trips on AI) will continue for employees (including those who have retired), we don’t know,” the former employee quoted above, says.  

Amidst such confusion, the ‘Maharaja’ is ready for a homecoming. In 1953, the Tata Group had given up ownership of the airline to the Nehru government for Rs 2.8 crore. Today, after 68 years, it has bought it back for Rs 18,000 crore. Out of the total amount, Tata will take over debt worth Rs 15,300 crore on its books, while the remaining Rs 2,700 crore will be the actual cash payout to the government.  

For neoliberal reformists, the deal marks a major victory for the Narendra Modi-led NDA government, as several attempts in the past—including those by the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government—had failed to yield results. For the Centre, it puts an end to a 15-year-long loss-making stint for the airline, which led to a debt accumulation of Rs 61,560 crore. Since Tata has taken over only a fourth of the carrier’s loan book, the government will have to come up with a strategy and resources to service the remaining Rs 46,262 crore. But, the fact that future losses would be borne by the Tata Group is reason enough for many to swear by the mantra, “A government has no business to be in business”. 

For the employees, the most importantly change is a shift from a government job to a private (contractual or permanent) one. But unlike other private jobs, which often hang by a thread, the Tata Group has agreed—keeping with its reputation and as part of the deal with the AI employee’s union—not to retrench anyone for the next one year. Even after that, if someone is to be laid off, the Tatas will offer VRS (voluntary retirement scheme). “The winning bidder will retain all employees, which means they won’t retrench anybody for a period of one year. Thereafter, for the second year, if anybody is to be retrenched or removed, they will be offered VRS,” civil aviation secretary Rajeev Bansal said while announcing Tatas as the winner of the bid.   

At present, the airline has 12,085 employees—8,084 permanent and 4,001 contractual. Over the next five years, around 5,000 of these will retire. Each employee will be eligible for medical, provident funds and other benefits that they were entitled to under government ownership. But free trips for them and their relatives will be curbed, while health insurance of retired employees will be transferred either to the central government health scheme (CGHS) or to an insurance company for which employees will need to make partial payment.   

But that’s not what everyone is bothered about. “At least, we would get our salaries on time. Flying allowance, which makes up 70 per cent of our salaries, was never released on time. While we are aware of the chances of getting laid-off after a year, having a job that never pays on time has also been tough,” said an AI pilot, requesting anonymity.  

Many believe bringing the AI Union on board has been a clincher for the sale. “Even during the pandemic, employees of Vistara (also owned by the Tatas) were better looked after than us. We have great hopes from the new employer, and are excited and apprehensive at the same time. We look forward to meeting the new employer and take AI to its former glory,” says Captain Praveen Keerthi, general secretary, ICPA that represents the union of AI pilots.  

But, days before the deal was finalised, the ICPA had written a letter to the management, seeking reinstatement of pre-pandemic allowances that were discontinued to prune costs since Covid struck.  

25/10/21 Neeraj Thakur/Pallavi Chakravorty/Outlook

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