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Summer of Discontent

3 minute read

It’s summer in Hong Kong, and that means steam-bath humidity, threatening typhoonsand labor problems at Cathay Pacific, the territory’s only major airline. This year the labor row has turned into a dogfight between the company and its 1,600 pilots, and neither side has yet scored a kill. Travelers around Asia have already been inconvenienced by the labor dispute, and both sidesbut mainly managementhave been increasing the acrimony as steadily as the Hong Kong temperature has been rising.

The squabble began two weeks ago when Cathay’s pilots rejected a new three-year contract offering them raises of up to 10.5%. Cathay had lost the last couple of rounds: two years ago it backed down from a plan to cut employee salaries in the middle of the Asian economic crisis. And last year, pilots refused to work longer hours amid unexpectedly buoyant business. This summer the company decided to go all out to win. After talks broke down the pilots announced a disruptive ploy called “work to rule,” which meant they would do all the safety checks in the pilot’s manual, word-by-word, even if it delayed takeoffs and gummed up flight scheduleswhich is exactly what it did. Days later, a typhoon shut down Chek Lap Kok airport, totally disrupting air travel in and out of Hong Kong, and Cathay announced that the pilots’ disruption only made things worse. Then the company lowered the boom, firing 49 pilots without warningmany of them union members, and some of them top organizers of the labor protestwhile simultaneously tucking a 9% raise into the paychecks of their remaining colleagues a year before current work agreements expire. Not content with brandishing the stick and offering some carrots, Cathay also chartered 17 planes, with pilots, to show its own flyboys it could do without them.

The sackings, though legal in Hong Kong, are the first time Cathay has bypassed its usual disciplinary and dismissal procedures, which feature a hearing and give the employee the right to appeal. “Essentially we lost confidence in them,” says Lisa Wong, a Cathay spokesperson. “We reviewed their individual employment histories and looked carefully at their overall standards of conduct and employment attitudes.” But she added: “There was no doubt of their flying abilities.”

Indeed, some of the sacked pilots had worked for the company for more than two decades. The list of targeted pilots was kept secret. Some of the pink slips were sent by courier, but not all. “One guy reported to work because he had a long-range flight that night,” says John Findlay, the union representative, “and his access card to the building didn’t work.” Another pilot on a layover in Los Angeles got the bad news on a 2 a.m. wake-up call. “They just started picking selected people,” Findlay says, “so that when the word goes around to other pilots, it would instill fear in them.” (Among pilots, a rumor is spreading of a second list of 118 names.) The pilots call Cathay’s tactics union busting. Hong Kong’s wary travelers call it just another summer.

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