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Coronavirus: Row over BA staff future deepens

Theo Leggett - Business correspondent, BBC News
Cabin crew

British Airways is in a bitter standoff with unions over sweeping proposals to restructure its business.

As well as proposing to make up to 12,000 staff redundant, BA also wants change pay and conditions for its workforce.

This restructuring could include pay cuts and worse conditions for some staff, while others could benefit.

Pilots union Balpa is engaging with the airline, but some other unions are refusing to come to the table.

Crew concerns

Anxious, scared, used and betrayed. That is how one member of British Airways' cabin crew has described her feelings, as she waits to find out whether or not she will lose her job.

The company has already warned that thousands of jobs could go at the airline, as it struggles to deal with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But according to the trade union Unite, which represents cabin crew and check-in staff, the reality is much worse than that.

It claims the company wants to fire virtually its entire workforce, before re-employing most of them on inferior terms and conditions. It is a charge the company vehemently denies.

'Burning cash'

The aviation industry as a whole has been ravaged by the effects of the pandemic - which left some 17,000 aircraft grounded worldwide, leaving some airlines with hardly any revenue.

It is widely expected that the recovery will be a slow one, and that traffic is unlikely to return to the levels seen last year until 2023 at the earliest. Carriers have been left trying to cope with an acute crisis, while preparing for a difficult future.

British Airways is no exception. The company says it is currently burning through its cash reserves at a rate of around £1m per hour, and the chief executive, Alex Cruz, has made it clear that the very survival of the business is at stake.

Although it has not sought a bespoke bailout from the government, BA has furloughed more than 22,600 staff under the Job Retention Scheme. It has also borrowed £300m under the Covid Corporate Financing Facility, a loan scheme established by the Treasury and the Bank of England.

Standoff

On 28 April, BA's parent International Airlines Group warned investors that it planned to implement a restructuring programme at the company, which could result in up to 12,000 redundancies.

That same day, BA issued a series of formal notices to staff unions indicating that it planned to begin consultations over the planned restructuring measures. These 'section 188' notices outlined BA's broad proposals - but they also contained the following warning:

"We are hoping to reach agreement with you about these proposals, but if that is not possible (and we were unable to implement these proposals by relying on the reasonable changes clause in an employee's contract), we are proposing to give employees notice of termination and offer them new terms and conditions of employment".

BA planes seen behind barbed wire fence

It is this statement which has provoked a bitter standoff between BA and Unite.

The union insists that it is not merely a threat - and that the company has every intention of firing staff if it needs to, in order to move them onto new contracts, with inferior terms and conditions.

It claims the airline is simply being opportunistic, using a short-term crisis to force through changes which will leave its members permanently worse off, irrespective of how quickly the industry recovers.

"BA is using this health crisis as cover to impose a long-term plan to slash jobs, pay and conditions. No other employer has threatened to effectively 'fire and rehire' its entire workforce," Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey said.

However, BA insists the proposals are at an early stage and that it wants to try to protect as many jobs as possible.

"The airline industry is facing the deepest structural change in its history, as well as facing a severely weakened global economy," it said.

British Airways insists Unite and another union, GMB, have been invited to 155 meetings in order to discuss the proposals - but have refused to engage with the company. The pilots' union Balpa, by contrast, has been taking part in consultations.

Job worries

BA staff are clearly feeling the pressure. One cabin crew member based at Gatwick told BBC South East she felt "so anxious and scared. I feel used. I feel betrayed"

"How am I going to pay the mortgage? How am I going to live?... It's just so unfair", she said.

Another crew member, who has been working in BA's long haul fleet for more than two decades, said the financial worries are intense.

"I'm seeing things saying I'm likely to have a 50% pay cut - and how I'm supposed to have a pay cut like that and live near Heathrow, one of the most expensive areas in the country, I don't know."