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PIA strike

Updated January 28, 2016


LARGE-SCALE losses are no doubt mounting as PIA workers go on strike against what they perceive to be measures to privatise the national airline.

Earlier, the workers’ unions had successfully blocked a board meeting, delaying the finalisation of the company’s annual report, again due to their perception that the board was meeting to advance plans on privatisation.

Know more: PIA workers observe countrywide strike

While the frustration of the fliers is understood, and the difficulties facing the government in dealing with a loss-making enterprise with strong workers’ unions are also evident, it is difficult to escape the impression that the centre is mishandling the whole process.

The manner in which the ordinance to make PIA a corporate body was issued on the sly was inexcusable; similarly, the bill in the National Assembly was more or less railroaded through.

It was amazing to see all PML-N legislators in the Assembly on the day of the vote, when otherwise their attendance leaves much to be desired.

True, ensuring a large turnout on an important day when the party leadership was abroad was a sign of discipline within the ranks.

Unfortunately, what was also on display was the party’s reluctance to have a debate on the process as well as its haste to pass the bill without any consensus-building effort.

While no doubt PIA employees have every right to make their insecurity known through protest, they might have been less convinced of their action had the major political parties been persuaded to support the process the government had embarked upon.

In turn, these parties would feel far more comfortable supporting the government if they were at least informed about what the rulers’ plans are.

Thus far all we know is that the government intends to locate a ‘strategic investor’ who will take a minority stake in the company along with management control. We don’t know why the government delayed moving on this matter when the commitment for privatisation, or divestment at least, was given to the IMF at least two years ago.

There is little doubt that the government has to take some drastic action to rescue PIA. The losses are mounting, even after oil prices have hit their lowest point in over a decade, and management spends most of its time arranging funds to meet their debt-service obligations.

So long as PIA’s balance sheet remains laden with an almost Rs300bn debt, it is difficult to envisage some sort of a turnaround in its finances and operations.

Making this happen in a matter of months is not something that ought to be attempted. It will take time to chalk out the strategy that leads out of this quagmire, and then build a consensus around it.

But the government’s preference to make arbitrary decisions in the absence of transparency is to be blamed for the noisy fiasco that is shaping up around the future of the national airline.

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2016