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Wildcat strike grounds Philippine Airlines

MANILA, Sept 27 – Philippine Airlines grounded all its flights on Tuesday after thousands of workers went on strike in a desperate last-ditch bid to keep their jobs from being outsourced.

PAL warned of legal action to combat the ground staff’s surprise move, which added to the travel chaos brought on by Typhoon Nesat that slammed into the country early Tuesday and caused many other domestic flights to be suspended.

“We apologise profusely to the riding public, and sympathise with those who were affected just as the typhoon struck, but this is a bigger typhoon hitting our lives,” PAL Employees’ Association president Gerry Rivera told AFP.

“We have been trying hard to follow the rule of law, but our backs are pushed against the wall. We will lose our jobs, our livelihoods.”

PAL said more than 100 international and domestic flights were cancelled on Tuesday because of the industrial action, with 14,000 passengers affected.

The 2,600 ground staff — who provide the in-flight catering, airport services and call centre reservations — staged the wildcat strike in protest over plans by the loss-making airline to outsource their jobs on October 1.

PAL sent termination notices to its ground staff last month, saying it needed to trim its workforce to save up to $15 million in annual operating costs.

The outsourcing programme was a key component of PAL’s “survival blueprint” launched last year after the airline incurred losses of $312 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal year.

The plan would also severely weaken union influence over PAL.

The airline has a long history of confrontation with unions, and is currently embroiled in another long-running battle with its in-flight crews over retirement age and salaries.

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PAL said the laid-off ground staff had an option to join the various outsourcing companies.

But the union said the new employers were offering salaries less than half of staff members’ current ones, and with no guarantee of ongoing employment because the contracts required six-month trial periods.

Rivera said, as an example, a master mechanic with nearly three decades experience and currently earning 28,000 pesos ($640) a month had been offered a monthly salary of just 11,110 pesos.

PAL president Jamie Bautista branded the industrial action illegal and said the airline’s plans to replace the workers had been brought forward to Tuesday in an effort to get planes back in the air as quickly as possible.

He warned the striking workers that they could lose their retirement benefits and face criminal action resulting in up to three years in jail if they refused to give way to the replacement workers immediately.

“We have requested the airport police… to see to it that people (replacement workers) who will man the counter and operate our equipment will be secured,” Bautista told a hastily convened press conference.

He said PAL was hoping to restart flights by 6:00pm (1000 GMT) on Tuesday.

The president’s office and the labour department have approved PAL’s outsourcing plans.

The workers are holding out hope that the Court of Appeals will still rule in their favour, although it has not given any indication it will deliver its verdict before the outsourcing takes place.

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Bautista conceded Tuesday’s episode was a public relations disaster for his company, which has had to watch rival Cebu Pacific overtake it recently as the country’s number one airline in terms of passenger numbers.

“Definitely, it will affect the brand. It will take some time again for us to regain the support of the riding public,” he said.

At Manila airport, passengers were left bewildered and angry.

“I’m going to attend a wedding so I will miss the wedding,” said Kanane Duncan, a woman from Botswana who lives in Manila and was on her way to the central city of Cebu.

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