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PIA standoff: Govt ups the ante by banning union activity

Updated Feb 01, 2016 05:48pm

ISLAMABAD: In a move to stall an impending strike, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday enforced the Essential Services (Maintenance) Act 1952 for six months, barring protesting members of the Pakistan International Airlines from participating in any union activity.

"Any person found guilty of an offence under this Act shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year and shall also be liable to a fine," the legislation reads.

The law essentially restricts union activity in state-administered sectors, including railways, postal services, telephone and affiliated services, and airports and seaports.

The aviation division had sent a summary to the prime minister which was approved today.

Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid, talking to reporters after the enforcement of the Act, made clear that strict action will be taken against protesting employees.

“Let me make clear that those who continue the strike will be treated as enemies of PIA and Pakistan and they will end up losing their jobs.”

Responding to a question, Rashid said flight operations will not be halted from tomorrow, adding that the government had made alternate arrangements of pilots and engineering staff to ensure that operations continue smoothly.

Rashid said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had made clear that no PIA employee will be laid off during privatisation, reiterating that the government will not tolerate strikes.

Employees of the national carrier have threatened to go on strike from Tuesday, February 2, because of what they called the government’s refusal to accept their main demand of calling off the organisation’s privatisation plan.

PML-N Senator Mushahid­ullah Khan announced on Friday that the government had postponed the privatisation of the national flag carrier for six months and requested the protesting workers to end their strike.

Mr Mushahidullah asked the joint action committee of PIA employees to withdraw its decision of the strike and resume flight operations, otherwise the government would use its authority and impose the Essential Services Act, if PIA employees did not call off their strike.

The act was also invoked by the government in January 2013 during the doctors' strike for better wages and regularisation, resulting in the sacking of young doctors for participating in a strike.

Union to go ahead with strike

Soon after the PM's decision to enforce the Essential Services Act was announced, Chief of Joint Action Committee of PIA's protesting employees Capt Sohail Baloch told journalists that the body will go ahead with the strike they had announced earlier.

"We are going to go ahead with our plan. I don't know what the restrictions are... but if there are any restrictions we are ready to face them, even if we are baton-charged," he said.

"The government has till 7am tomorrow for negotiations, after that we will go on strike," he said.

Read more: PIA workers reiterate threat to halt flight operations

Represen­ta­tives of PIA employees announced on Sunday they would continue their strike and reiterated their threat to bring all flight operations to a halt from Tuesday (Feb 2).

Announcing the decision at the PIA head office, the chief of Joint Action Com­mittee of PIA Employees (JACPIAE), Baloch said the government had not accepted the workers’ demand of scrapping the privatisation plan.

He said that if the government did not call off the plan by Monday all flight operations would be halted from the following day.

He claimed that the employees were united on the issue and were ready to render sacrifices to protect the national flag carrier.

He said that Federal Aviation Secretary Irfan Illahi had called the JACPIAE leaders on Sunday and informed them that the privatisation plan had been shelved for six months and, therefore, protesting employees should end their protest.

But he also told the employees’ representatives that he could not guarantee that the airline would not be privatised after six months.

Mr Baloch said that because of the government’s response, the employees had decided to continue their protest till the acceptance of their demand.

Meanwhile, the PIA management has asked the employees to call off their protest and resume duty and said that because of workers’ strike for six days the organisation had incurred a loss of Rs600 million.

PIA — 'Perhaps I'll Arrive'

Once a source of pride for the country, PIA's decay has made it the butt of jokes, one of which goes that its initials actually stand for 'Perhaps I'll Arrive'.

Flights are regularly cancelled and engineers say they have to cannibalise some planes to keep others flying.

Related: PIA airhostess held with drugs

In recent years, a PIA pilot was jailed in the United Kingdom for being three times over the alcohol limit before he was due to fly. Local media reported that another pilot delayed a New York-bound flight for more than two hours as he waited for a sandwich delivery.

Over the years, critics say, governments have manipulated state corporations like PIA for political and financial gain, giving jobs to so many supporters that the size of the workforce has become unsustainable in the face of mounting losses.

In an interview with Reuters in 2014, Pakistan's privatisation minister Mohammad Zubair had said that PIA's employee-to-aircraft ratio, at around 600, is one of the worst in the world and keeps going up as more planes are grounded.

He said the government plans to split the ailing national flag carrier PIA into two companies and sell control of the core business to a global airline over the next 18 months, but political opposition to the sell-off will be intense.