Under the global pandemic, how does collective bargaining play a role?

Covid-19 has hard hit the economy. With a series of lockdown measures in countries and cities, aviation is one of the first industries to bear the brunt. Even with government’s intervention, the airlines may still need to cut costs. Yet, when there is a lack of legitimacy in negotiation between the employers and employees, countless employees will simply lose their jobs and their families will be affected during these economic difficulties. The unbalanced employer-employee relationship owes much to the passivity of the system, which is condemnable as employees are treated like disposables when the hard times come.

The mechanism that can so-called balance the labour-management relation is that the Law gives trade unions the right to collectively bargain with the company regarding the working conditions. In the current pandemic crisis, some airlines have effectively discussed with the labour unions, or switched to other plans to reduce staffing, or cut costs in other ways. All these were attempts to reduce the damage of layoffs on workers. This article compares the cases from other countries. A conclusion can be drawn: Those companies which have allowed the most unscrupulous layoffs are usually in places without collective bargaining.

Collective bargaining can influence company decisions

In a place where collective bargaining laws have been enacted, local labour unions are able to exercise their rights to intervene and to discuss different possible arrangements with airline companies in difficulty. To take an example in Germany, Lufthansa, despite having received a bail-out of 9 billion euros from the government, had still warned to lay off 30,000 employees. In reaction, the union was supported by the employees to counter-propose that the ground staff of Deutsche Lufthansa, Lufthansa Technik and Lufthansa Cargo would voluntarily give up the bonus of the next two years and open early retirement and voluntary severance schemes. This proposal has successfully called for the company's promise that no layoffs would be made for one year1. Similarly, British Airways originally planned to lay off 12,000 positions. The union first proposed that the pilots’ salaries be reduced by 20% within two years, so the layoff number could be reduced from 1,255 to 270. The ground crew then recommended voluntary severance and flexible work, in exchange for rescuing all ground staff positions.2 United Airlines also managed to reach an agreement with the pilots' union to halt the original severance plan.

Bargainings and legislation as the last line of defense

In Hong Kong, although the two aviation unions of Cathay Pacific flight attendants and pilots have signed a collective agreement with the company, it was not a statutory collective bargaining mechanism. Any agreement of the kind could be nullified anytime. As a result, Cathay Pacific had conveniently laid off all employees of its subsidiary Dragonair in October last year.7 In November, the company permanently terminated the annual negotiation agreement with the labour union and forced their employees to sign a related agreement. 8The union side was never consulted on this matter. The last remaining collective bargaining mechanism between labour and management is now seriously undermined. The Labour Department simply turned a blind eye and there was no further action against the company.

During an economic downturn, the labour and the management should persevere together. Precisely because of this, labour and management bargaining are a rational and peaceful manner to reach a win-win solution. After studying the pandemic experiences of workers in different countries, we can say it is tyranny rather than malady that ripped off the rights and protection of workers. This pandemic has shown the significance of laws and negotiation mechanisms. We hope that the trade unions all over the globe can act in time to grow strong again and reclaim their lost rights.