The strike by the PIA workers has proved crippling. Further escalation carries grave risks of turning the affair into a larger trade union issue, as other unions voice support for the disgruntled employees, and political parties make plans to capitalise on the moment.

The government must refrain from threatening the unions with dismissals and other legal action since an increase in tensions will only exacerbate the situation. Meanwhile, the unions must realise that bringing PIA operations to a standstill is untenable for all parties — for the employees, the airline, and the passengers.

There have been many flight disruptions and several people have been left stranded. In this context, it is a relief to know that there has been some effort on the part of the government to approach the union leadership; while at the time of writing the situation was still uncertain, what is clear is that the matter must be resolved as quickly as possible for the airline to resume operations – and then move on to the larger issues.

An earlier meeting between some senior ministers ought to have discussed ways of de-escalating matters rather than exploring options to proceed against PIA employees. It is understandable that the government wants to take strong and decisive action in a matter that has dogged successive governments for years, and pushed the national airline to the brink of financial collapse.

But aggressive words can do more damage under the circumstances and efforts to seek a less disruptive way forward should not be abandoned. It was an attempt to get tough with the unions that led to the deaths of two protesters and galvanised the strike in the first place, and resulted in the government losing the moral high ground. Now the government should not give the affair the appearance of a showdown.

This would be compounding error with folly. As part of a larger initiative, the government should extend the leaders of the strike an invitation to come to Islamabad for talks to comprehensively sort out the issue. Talks should focus on ending the current impasse even as they address the workers’ grievances.

While it is obvious that the national airline is in need of dire reform, it is also important that the government handle the matter in a sensitive manner, without attempting to ride roughshod over the unions that claim to work for the employees’ rights.

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2016

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