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Pilot-airline fault lines, legal issues exposed in strike threat

2018/08/08 18:01:04

Lee Hsin-yen (李信燕) / CNA file photo

By Lee Hsin-Yin, CNA Staff Reporter

The ongoing dispute between China Airlines (CAL) and EVA Airways pilots and the airlines themselves have revealed big differences over what constitutes a good working environment in the aviation industry and fissures over labor law interpretations.

After announcing Tuesday that CAL and EVA Air pilots had voted overwhelmingly in favor of a walkout, the Pilots Union Taoyuan said a strike date will be set on Aug. 20 if the two carriers do not offer their pilots a better deal by then.

Unlike many labor actions focused primarily on increases in basic pay, this dispute revolves more around rest time and working hours, pilots' rights and obligations, and bonus issues.

"The aim of the strike is to create a fairer and more respectful working environment for the pilots so we can better ensure flight safety for the passengers," said Lee Hsin-yen (李信燕), the union's chairwoman and an EVA Air pilot.

Pilots with both CAL and EVA Air are demanding, for example, that airlines beef up crews on transoceanic flights or give them more time to rest before and after the flights.

CAL pilots have asked their employer to assign four pilots and co-pilots instead of the usual three to all flights scheduled to take more than 12 hours.

EVA Air pilots have made a similar request, asking for four crew members for flights to the East Coast of North America in the winter, when flights can be as long as 16 hours.

The union has also asked EVA Air to allow pilots to rest overnight after flights to Japan rather than scheduling them to return the same day, in part out of concern that pilots end up exceeding the maximum 12 hours of work per day allowed under the Labor Standards Act.

"While the standard flight time is slightly under 12 hours for a Taoyuan-Sendai round-trip flight, it is often the case that it takes us more time," Lee said, noting that a pilot's work day actually goes from two hours before boarding time to one hour after landing back in Taiwan.

The airlines have said they schedule shifts based on "Aircraft Flight Operation Regulations (AOR)," which allow for more flexibility than the Labor Standards Act.

The difference in the two standards often leads to disputes over which one provides for more reasonable working conditions, and Transportation Minister Wu Hong-mo (吳宏謀) pledged Tuesday to review the AOR with the Labor Ministry to see if changes are necessary.

Days off debate

CAL pilots also want to increase their number of paid sick leave days to 30, up from the current five, which would bring them even with the 30 days of paid sick leave available to EVA Air pilots.

On the other hand, EVA pilots want their standard days off per year to be increased to 123 days per year (which CAL pilots have) from the current 115-117 days as provided for under the Labor Standards Act.

Even more important to pilots of both airlines, however, is that they actually get those days off.

Pilots Taoyuan Union executive director and CAL pilot Chen Hsiang-lin (陳祥麟) has said previously that while pilots may be entitled to 123 days off, they may in reality only get 90 days off because of differences in how a day off is defined or scheduling issues.

Lee sees the problem as tight staffing that means pilots have to give up vacation days to replace others because of sickness, delays, or bad weather conditions without getting them back.

The airlines, she says, "buy" the pilots' lost days off with compensation.

But if EVA Air is not willing to boost pilot levels to give it enough manpower to deal with contingencies, the union wants the airline to pay "double pay" to buy back vacation days, giving the airline an incentive not to overwork pilots, Lee says.

Bonus questions

The pilots are also pushing for better year-end bonuses. EVA Air pilots are hoping to get the same year-end bonus as ground staff equal to four months' base salary. They received a three-month bonus last year.

That three-month bonus was equal to two months of base salary and one month of "full" salary, which the airline feels is comparable to what ground staff get because full salary can be many times more than base salary.

Lee said the union believes the month of full salary should not counted as a bonus because it is treated as salary in the pilots' contract, but EVA Air disagrees.

CAL pilots said they want a year-end bonus of a month's full pay rather than the standard one month of basic salary given to all of the company's employees.

Other contentious issues include the length of a pilot's first contract (they currently have to commit to an airline for 15 years), the rights of pilots to decide whether or not to fly in bad weather, and whether or not flight data (such as data on "hard" landings) should be used in performance evaluations.

Tai Tso-min (戴佐敏), an associate professor in the Department of Transportation and Communication Management Science at National Cheng Kung University, told CNA that the management policies currently adopted by CAL and EVA Air are generally aligned with those of the global aviation industry.

"The carriers of course want to be very careful with pilot management because the group has relatively high personnel costs," Tai said.

Legal gray area

The dispute between airlines and their pilots also points to differences in interpretations of Taiwan's labor laws.

EVA Air has hinted that the union may not legally represent its pilots because the Collective Agreement Act says companies do not have to negotiate with professional unions if they do not represent more than one half of the company's employees.

The carrier says the union has only 542 of EVA Air's 1,300 pilots, leaving it short of the threshold.

The union contends, however, that EVA Air's roughly 300 foreign pilots are not counted in the formula under union-related laws and that the 542 members represent more than half of the airline's Taiwanese pilots.

EVA counters that foreign and local pilots should be treated the same "because they get equal pay for equal work."

CAL has taken a different tack. It has filed for a provisional injunction to prevent the union from going on strike before the court rules that the union's action is legitimate.

CAL has argued that the union's action is illegal because an occupational union comprising members from different companies is not empowered to vote to decide a labor action against any single company.

The controversy has yet to be addressed because the court has yet to rule on the motion.

But the combination of two airlines' pilots under one union has led to "tag-team" demands, with pilots from the two airlines looking for similar days off, sick leave and overseas stipends (EVA Air pilots want the same US$5 per hour overseas that CAL pilots get).

Taiwan first saw an aviation-related strike two years ago, when CAL flight attendants went on strike for a day. The action affected 30,000 passengers, and the benefits gained added NT$500 million (US$15.38 million) a year to the airline's costs.

Should a strike occur this time, it would be the first time in Taiwan's history that airline pilots have staged a walkout.

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