AMID a sense of fear and insecurity that has prevailed among thousands of employees, the Pakistan International Airlines’ (PIA) management is moving forward with its plan to cut the existing workforce by half and shift the head office of the national flag carrier from Karachi to Islamabad despite the fact that it needs the parliament’s nod before taking any such step, it has emerged.
While the PIA management has its own reasons to justify the relocation of the head office and downsizing, current and former employees paint a grim picture of the state of affairs in the airline where even the country’s premier spy agency is being used as a tool to silence dissenting voices.
Background interviews with representatives of employees, officers, pilots and engineers suggest that none of them was taken on board by the management before and after deciding to shift the head office as well as the airline’s hub to Islamabad from Karachi.
They say that the management could not shift the head office on its own without obtaining the approval of the parliament that has to amend the Pakistan International Airlines Corporation (Conversion) Act, 2016.
Section 7 (2) of the PIAC Act reads: “The Headquarters of the Company and any of its subsidiary companies carrying on air-transport business shall be at Karachi.”
‘No valid reason’
“There is not a single valid reason to justify shifting of either the head office or airline’s hub from Karachi to Islamabad,” said PIA Officers Association’s general secretary Safdar Anjum, who is most vocal among all against the incumbent management led by retired Air Marshal Arshad Malik.
“Karachi is a unique place where entire organisational network of PIA is situated within an area of two-three kilometres. It has the Ispahani Hangar, complete engineering system. Is it wise to close down the hangar, outsource several other works and give engineering to PAF just to relocate the head office to Islamabad?” he asked.
He claimed that the only reason behind the relocation decision was that Air Marshal Malik and his coterie of advisers, whom he brought from the Pakistan Air Force on deputation, had houses and families in Islamabad.
However, the PIA management has rejected all the allegations as politically motivated.
“PIA is shifting its operational and support offices to Islamabad because of the inherent shift in travelling demographics. Previously, majority of PIA’s traffic originated from Karachi being the trade centre and largest city of the country but now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and adjoining areas contribute majority of the labour in Gulf countries and north eastern GT Road adjacent areas and AJK contribute maximum traffic to Europe, the UK and Far East,” said PIA spokesperson Abdullah Hafeez Khan.
“So it’s very natural that PIA in order to target this segment has to increase its presence in the north. With increased operations, the manpower requirement has also increased. It is now not possible to keep the workforce centralised in Karachi while running operations from the north,” he explained the management’s point of view.
But the decision is being seen as a political move to deprive people of Sindh and Balochistan who would find it hard to settle in a city situated far away from their home. Almost every political party has rejected the decision and only on Tuesday PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari vowed to include PIA workers in the opposition’s anti-government campaign.
Currently, PPP-backed Peoples Unity is the CBA in PIA but many of its opponents allege that the CBA is not doing what it was supposed to do i.e. to safeguard the interest of workers and instead its leaders have been showered with favours by the incumbent management.
The Air League, a workers’ body associated with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, termed the relocation of head office to Islamabad an “undemocratic and anti-people” decision that has shattered the national solidarity.
And the pilot’s body, Pakistan Air Line Pilots Association (Palpa), said that shifting of the head office would have far-reaching consequences and locals would lose jobs, as most employees were unable to move out of Karachi.
However, an aviation expert having 40 years of experience believed that shifting of the head office was “one of the best thing that can happen to help PIA get back on its feet”.
He agreed with the PIA that Karachi was no more leading in number of flights saying “maximum flights out of Pakistan are from Islamabad and Lahore”.
With 29 planes, the current aircraft-to-employee ratio of PIA is 500 employees per aircraft and the airline management wants to reduce it by half to 250 per aircraft.
The PIA currently has 14,500 employees and earlier this month it had introduced a Voluntarily Separation Scheme (VSS) with a target of laying off 3,500 workers.
The current and former officials view the relocation of head office plan as a move to rid the airline of maximum number of staffers particularly those living in Sindh and Balochistan.
They say the management had transferred around 800 employees of all groups to Islamabad from Karachi and, therefore, most of Sindhi and Urdu-speaking employees opted for the VSS instead of going to a city that was far more expensive than Karachi.
A Palpa spokesperson told Dawn that “employees have been put under tremendous stress by posting them out to Islamabad” at the shortest possible notice so that they could avail VSS.
Mr Anjum of Officers Association and Palpa spokesperson say VSS was not a new scheme as it was offered twice during different administrations.
“No one can object to a retirement scheme as long as it remains voluntary,” said Mr Anjum, adding: “But the VSS is not voluntary as employees are being harassed and intimidated.”
“An atmosphere of fear and dreadfulness has been created so that employees opt out in the fear of aftermath of VSS; this includes selective leakages of documents, Mandatory Separation Scheme, forced transfers, shifting of head office, downgrading basic rights and benefits, and so-called performance-based profiling, leading to firing of employees,” the Palpa spokesperson said.
When asked about allegations of harassment and use of intelligence outfits for intimidating employees, PIA spokesperson Khan said: “PIA associations are all politically affiliated to the parties that instilled them in the corporation and generated funds and influence through them, and they often carry the same narrative as their political masters. Their presence is not as important and critical in greater political landscape as they tend to believe.”
The incumbent chief executive of PIA was the vice chief of air staff when he assumed the responsibility of national carrier. His administration has so far sacked over 900 people on disciplinary grounds because of their alleged involvement in corruption, fake degrees and other charges. As he retired from the PAF and became the full-time PIA CEO, he draws support from the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government for bringing reforms and restructure the debt-ridden organisation.
“Whatever his intentions are, one thing is clear that his anti-workers steps are making Prime Minister Imran Khan and PTI highly unpopular,” observed a senior PIA official, asking not to be named.
Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2020