IT is unfortunate that the privatization of PIA has become a controversial issue. The matter has been hanging fire for more than a year now but the authorities did not foresee the crisis building up. Negotiations came to a stop a few weeks ago, with the employees warning of striking work in support of their demands. But the government did not respond until the explosion last week which brought PIA flights to a stop. Information minister Pervaiz Rashid added fuel to the fire with his statement that the "wings of the striking workers will be clipped". The situation was further exacerbated when PM Nawaz Sharif announced that the striking workers would be sacked and sent to jail. Next day two PIA employees were killed in a case of mysterious firing which is still being investigated.
Questions have been raised about why Rangers who are in Karachi to combat terrorism were deployed to tackle what is basically a trade union dispute. As pointed out by neutral observers, the government has adopted a completely illogical and impractical approach in dealing with PIA, the national flag carrier. To expect that employees feeling insecure about their jobs will not react or to think that invoking the Essential Services Act will force them to back off from their strike call was a grave mistake. The critics blame the government for carrying out PIA's privatization in a haphazard manner without doing proper homework. Privatisation is a sensitive issue throughout the world as trade unions take it as a move by the capitalists to monopolise the economy and deprive the workers of their due rights. Given the sensitivity of the issue, the government should have opened talks with the trade unions long before the launch of the process to address their concerns.
What are the merits of the PIA privatization move? The official point of view is that PIA is incurring huge, unsustainable losses. This is true. But, contrary to official propaganda, over-staffing is not the prime cause of the losses. There is a long and sordid history of political interference in PIA's affairs and bad management imposed on the airline by successive governments. PPP during its five-year term made thousands of political appointments, while in the last two years PML-N government has done the same. What is worse, while the overhead costs have risen exponentially, the present government has cut the reach and level of flight operations by leasing out many profitable routes to foreign airlines. This has multiplied the losses manifold.
What is the way out of the imbroglio? It seems those in the government who have been talking of mass sacking of workers or setting up a new airline have not yet learned their lesson. This will spark a countrywide protest among other labour unions some of whom have already voiced support for the striking PIA employees. The solution lies in tackling the explosive situation with a cool head through diplomacy and negotiations. But, for this approach to succeed, the government must stop threatening the unions with dismissals and other legal action. This is necessary to defuse tension and bring down the temperature. Once the government wins the trust of the workers, negotiations can start to hammer out an agreed solution. The employees will not be averse to privatisation if they are assured of their job security. Alternatively, the workers and the management can agree on a formula to revive the airline and make it a profitable organization which once it was.