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Resentment by ground workers triggers strikes

March 14, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Strikes currently hitting European airports are a symptom of a malaise – airports and airlines are generating more money while ground workers’ wages are squeezed and full-time work becomes part time. Australian airport workers report the same thing.

In Europe last week, a wave of sudden strikes paralysed airports in Germany, France and Finland, stranded thousands of air travellers and closed all Berlin airports on Friday, the peak day of ITB Berlin, Europe’s biggest travel show. See: Euro airport strikes strand patrons of ITB travel show

As a background, world airlines saw their profits quadruple over the five years to 2015. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects the global airline industry to make a net profit in 2017 of USD 29.8 billion. On forecast total revenues of USD 736 billion, that represents a 4.1% net profit margin.

An investigation last year by the International Transport Federation (ITF), published under the title “Record profits for airlines; airport workers under pressure” found structural changes underway to airline and airport jobs “once regarded as decent, secure and relatively well-paid”, the survey said.

“In recent years, there have been dramatic increases in the privatisation of airports and subcontracting of in-house airline services, which have eroded working conditions across the board. Despite rising passenger numbers, airlines’ labour costs fell by 5.5% between 2014 and 2015.

“The subcontracting of ground handling is a key growth area in the industry, worth USD 50 billion worldwide and employing 60,000 people in Europe alone,” the ITF found.

Ground handling covers the airline services delivered at airports to support the operation of air services. It includes maintenance, fuel and oil services and freight handling, as well as services essential to passengers’ safety and comfort, such as check-in, catering, baggage handling and surface transport at the airport.

“The share of independent ground handling companies of the world handling market is growing and is expected to reach almost 60%  by 2028,” the ITF found.

“With labour accounting for up to 80% of costs in airport ground handling and security services, it is the workforce that has borne the brunt of intense cost-cutting as airlines and airports contract out these services.

“Research indicates that these jobs are now increasingly characterised by low pay, insecure and irregular hours, high staff turnover, a lack of adequate training and inadequate staffing levels.”

The report said that in Germany, subcontracted ground handlers are paid 30% less than those in equivalent in-house jobs.

“Research from the US shows that over the last two decades, wage levels have decreased by 14% in real terms across all airport jobs – in some jobs wages have almost halved in real terms. Workers are increasingly unable to meet their basic living costs due to irregular and insecure working hours and few full-time jobs.”

The ITF then switched its attention to Australia, where is said similar complaints had been made.

“The replacement of decent jobs with inferior, insecure outsourced jobs is happening on an industrial scale. Qantas, for example, recently laid off 5000 workers and replaced them with 9000 part-time employed people through its new subsidiaries QGS and Aerocare. QGS has no full-time employees and staff are only guaranteed a 20-hour week.

“Poor working conditions and low pay have increased staff turnover, which has led to a less experienced and less productive workforce. Inadequate staffing levels have also been reported and a study of over 800,000 civil aviation workers found that over 79% of ground workers felt they were expected to perform excessive amounts of work. Adequate training for new staff has also been sacrificed to minimise costs.

“This intense competition among providers and the drive to keep costs down also affects the passenger experience, and ultimately, airport safety and security. Less experienced, poorly trained and over-worked staff are less likely to be able to provide a smooth passenger service or remain vigilant for security threats.”

The report quoted Shane Dearie, a Qantas ramp worker at Perth Airport.

I’ve worked for Qantas Airways here at Perth airport for 15 years, and before that with Ansett Airlines for 10 years (until they went bust).

When I started here all work was full time and we were employed by Qantas, the jobs were good. When you got a job with Qantas you had a job for life and you only left if you died or retired. It was a great job, you worked hard and long hours but it was secure and you could raise a family on one income. 

Our employer has brought in contractors and removed penalty rates and shifts that allowed us to earn extra money that made our job liveable.

As well as the conditions and pay, the job itself has changed. We’ve gone from seven-man teams to four-man teams, but the same amount or even more work to be done. 

Written by Peter Needham

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