Corporate slavery

The thing about PAL

By Solita Collas-Monsod

August 6, 2010

FROM THE initial stories that came out in the press, one got the impression that the pilots who had left PAL were the bad guys. The stories, sourced from PAL management, went that the pilots were earning oodles of money (by local standards anyway—P500,000 a month was the figure being given for a senior pilot). Their training (“costing millions”), which had made them so highly skilled and highly priced in the first place, had been paid for by the company. And yet they left for greener pastures, and with nary a by-your-leave or backward look to boot, leaving behind unpaid debts to the company, forcing the airline to cancel scheduled flights, causing the passengers great inconvenience, reducing tourism, thus jeopardizing the economy. Such greedy, ungrateful, thoughtless, unpatriotic wretches was the structural message of these tales.

The PAL management, on the other hand, were the good guys in this version of the story. Although the pilots had broken the law and their contracts, which required them to give a six-month notice before leaving, the company was willing to forgive and forget all and would not press any charges or impose any sanctions as long as the pilots would come back. Structural message: management was not only reasonable, but ready to bend backward for the national good.

Unfortunately for the PAL spinners, the story was too big to be controlled by the usual methods of “envelopmental” journalism and the threat of advertising withdrawal. So the “bad guys” were able to get their own version across.

In this version, the pilots left because they saw how PAL had treated some of their colleagues, and weren’t about to wait for the same treatment to be meted out to them. Specifically, they saw their colleagues, both senior and junior, arbitrarily declared “redundant” and therefore retrenched/terminated, at about the same time that a couple of PAL airplanes were turned over to Air Philippines (a sister company). The retrenched pilots were then offered jobs at Air Phil, but at markedly lower (reportedly half of their former pay) salaries, because they had lost their seniority and were considered new hires. When even more PAL planes were rumored to be readied for transfer to its sister company, the pilots scrambled for jobs being offered abroad.

At first, PAL management pooh-poohed this version, and said (I heard it myself in a TV interview) that the pilots in question were not terminated but merely assigned to Air Phil on a “temporary” basis. But in the face of the first-person accounts that were being presented to the public and in MalacaƱang, and the fact that more and more pilots are planning to join their colleagues abroad, PAL presumably had to change its tune. So that yesterday’s headline was “PAL vows to stop moving pilots to Air Philippines.”

The above example of mendacity does not seem to be unique. The P500,000 a month salary figure quoted above—which fed the impression that pilots are greedy sons-of-bitches—is equally spurned by the pilots themselves. I talked to three pilots of varying seniority, who shared with me what they earn at PAL, and the figures, all in, averaged P350,000. Furthermore, their training, “costing millions,” turned out to be P1.9 million, but since this is a figure given in a PAL contract, the pilots feel that even this is an exaggeration, for which they are required to give five years of service.

Then there is the matter of the pilots leaving without the requisite notice, as claimed by PAL. If they did, it may be because of any or all of these reasons (again, from first-person accounts under similar circumstances): one is that PAL refused to accept their letter of resignation on the grounds that only a 30-day notice was given (per the Labor Code) and not the 180 days specified in their contract. (Anyone who reads that contract will see how onerous the terms are.) The pilots point out that the 180-day notice requirement is not a law (contrary to what was originally stated in the media, presumably courtesy of PAL). I checked this out with Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, asking her to cite the law. There is none. What is there is a memorandum circular from the POEA Board citing critical mission skills as reason for the 180-day notice—and she elaborated that this is binding only for pilots who are recruited in the Philippines—which is presumably why these pilots signed their contracts abroad.

A second reason is that PAL allegedly makes the lives of the pilots who give requisite notice a living hell: they are given the worst assignments, and their pay is withheld, supposedly while the company is making a determination of how much the pilot may be owing the company—which leaves the pilot, who has a family to support, in dire financial straits.

Apparently, if the pilots’ stories are to be believed (and I will take their word over management’s any time), PAL does not hesitate to use this time to undermine the pilot’s status with his prospective employer (what one may call a negative letter of reference), which has sometimes resulted in the withdrawal of the offer of employment; and/or to level some complaint against the pilot to “cooperative” immigration authorities or to the POEA or the NBI that will effectively stop his departure.

Let’s get real here. If the labor problems of PAL are limited to its pilots, maybe, just maybe it could be the pilots’ fault. But PAL has problems with its flight crews and ground crews as well. Corporate family? Corporate slavery, more like it. -- PDI

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