Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Solomonic decision

This was my column on the date indicated above.

If we are to believe news reports, the government is determined to prevent members of the Flight Attendants’ and Stewards’ Association of the Philippines the union of the cabin attendants of Philippine Airlines, the beleaguered national carrier, to make good on their threat of going on strike soon. Exactly how the government intends to carry out this intent remains unclear although the President and Labor Secretary have been quite busy doing an impression of the “good cop - bad cop” routine.

To bring home the message that it is very serious about not getting embarrassed publicly again (at least not too soon after the public relations nightmare that was the August 23 hostage-taking incident), the President issued the warning that the government will prioritize national interest over the interest of PAL or its union of cabin attendants. Lots of people applauded the President’s statement of concern. It sure is nice to know that the President is keeping a close watch on the situation. The problem was that he didn’t stop there. He felt compelled to issue the warning that if a strike happens at PAL, the government would not hesitate to pursue its bid to open Philippine skies to other carriers, which caused a lot of people to groan inwardly.

Pursuing an open skies policy as a punitive measure is tantamount to throwing the baby along with the bath water. First of all, I don’t think such a major decision should be made out of anger, or in haste, or as a form of punishment or sanction. I don’t think the President should throw around such a threat just because he is pissed at the inability of a particular company to resolve a labor dispute. I understand that public interest is at stake here, but crippling the long-term viability of the national carrier in exchange for short-term gains just does not come across as a good example of management thinking.

Besides I am not sure such a punishment is merited. Labor disputes, by nature, require Solomonic decisions that allow parties to save face not win-lose or lose-lose solutions. And even if we grant - without necessarily conceding- that moving towards an open skies set up is an appropriate sanction for whatever offense that was made, why come up with a punitive measure that also penalizes other local airlines? Surely we have not forgotten that PAL is not the only local airline. Opening up Philippine skies also affects Cebu Pacific, Air Philippines, Zest Air, etc.

More importantly, such a threat does not really address the problem that triggered or necessitated it to begin with. It’s not as if the move to open skies policy can be done immediately. Just working out the deals with foreign airlines will take some time, not to mention ensuring that the terms of the 1987 Constitution on reciprocity is observed. Surely nobody thought that it will be a simple matter of just allowing foreign airlines to ply domestic routes?

And knowing how things work in our country, it will only be a matter of time before a national furor ensues as businessmen and industries take sides on the issue. Our legislators will eventually get involved and everything and everyone will get enmeshed in a complicated tangle of legal suits and countersuits. Why, a congressional hearing could even be possible. By then, PAL and its cabin attendants would probably have settled their dispute. Everyone would have realized by then that focusing attention on resolving the labor dispute would have been the better course of action.

I concede that an open skies policy is probably inevitable in the future. Like globalization, it is something that cannot be stopped. However, it would be a tragedy if we jump into such a policy in haste and without the necessary preparation. Obviously we are not ready yet, so dangling an open-skies policy as a solution at this point seems foolhardy.

As I write, PAL and representatives of its cabin attendants are undergoing marathon mediation hearings presided over by Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz. Hope springs eternal, of course, so we join everyone in hoping that both parties come to an amicable settlement. My instincts as a human resource management professional, however, tell me that an amicable settlement is not going to be easy.

At the core of the dispute are allegations of sexist and discriminatory policies at PAL allegedly directed against the cabin attendants. The union is demanding that PAL throw out its current retirement policy, which sets various retirement ages for flight attendants depending on their hiring date. Female attendants hired before 1996 are mandated to retire at age 55 while their male counterparts are mandated to retire at age 60. The retirement age for those hired between 1996 and 2000 is set at 45 while those hired after 2000 are set to retire at age 40.

The demands seem reasonable on the surface and in this day and age of political correctness, cessation of employment based on age does seem like an antiquated concept. What the union, however, glosses over is that these retirement ages are stipulated in their collective bargaining agreement with PAL management. In short, they agreed to these. Moreover, the practical value of age limits for jobs that require a lot of physical and emotional pressure is highly debatable—I personally think that certain health risks get higher with age for certain people. Too bad we can’t have rules that are selective in application.

On the other hand, I agree that age limits contributes to “sexualization”— why do we continue to uphold this rather archaic notion that cabin attendants should look like models?—but unfortunately, PAL did not invent these rules. To my mind, the flight attendants knew about this set up and in fact capitalized on their physical assets when they applied for employment. I know a lot of PAL cabin attendants who take a lot of pride in their jobs precisely because everyone equates the job with good looks and youth. I think that this discussion has social relevance and has great implications on employment issues in the Philippines in general. I think that the issue requires longer and more comprehensive discussion.

If it is true that the union has not received salary increases in the last three years on account of stalled CBA negotiations, then they certainly have the right to demand for redress. However, I do not quite buy this assertion that PAL cabin attendants are paid low. I have come across a detailed breakdown of the compensation PAL flight attendants get and quite frankly, the number of allowances and add-ons boggles the mind.

We should all recognize that what we have here is a labor dispute and it is common practice for unions to strengthen their bargaining positions by portraying themselves as victims of oppression and injustice and for management to take the position that it cannot afford the union’s demands. This is why negotiations happen.

Unfortunately, the labor dispute threatens the public interest. Worse, the timing stinks. Both parties need to realize that they are headed for a lose-lose situation if they continue to keep a hard-line stance.

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