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Airport Workers Worldwide Are Uniting

Research & Commentary
July 06, 2016

by Steve Cotton

With global airlines registering record profits, unions around the world have formed a new organization to fight the airline industry’s cost-cutting culture and secure economic justice for airport workers. 

Originally published in Equal Times.

Carol Ruiz has been an airport worker in the United States for seven years. She is trying to support her family and recover from cancer. “It needs to be fair for all of us,” she says, “to have a decent salary and health insurance. We work hard to make our airlines good and make customers happy. We deserve to be treated better.”

Flight catering workers in Perth, Australia, June 2016.

Flight catering workers in Perth, Australia, June 2016.

Airport workers like Carol are the backbone of the global airline industry. In return they’re being worked harder, for less money and dwindling job security. They’ve had enough.

Last month saw the launch of new organization, Airports United, which represents tens of thousands of airport workers in over 100 airports worldwide. Its mission is clear — to improve aviation by securing economic justice and job security for those helping build the industry’s success.

The launch was backed by the release of an International Transport Workers’ Federation research report —Record profits for airlines; airport workers under pressure — that revealed just what the workers are up against. It showed that, even while the global airline industry is expected to make record profits this year, airlines are exploiting every opportunity to cut costs. This has created a race to the bottom, where airport workers, safety, and the quality of services are being put under extreme pressure.

More and more airline and airport services are being farmed out to subcontractors where, all too often, working conditions are poor. This cost-cutting culture has led to high staff turnover and less experienced workforces. The workers themselves tell us that this is leading to flight delays, an increased risk of security breaches — newer workers are almost twice as likely to be unwittingly involved in these — and corners being cut as they race to meet turnaround times with fewer and fewer staff, putting personal and aircraft safety at risk.

[pullquote]While airlines are getting richer, their workers are being paid less, worked more, and having their job security torn away.[/pullquote]

It should hardly need saying that well-trained airport workers are vital to passenger safety and wellbeing. They include those tasked with security, wheelchair assistance, fuelling, cargo and baggage handling, cabin cleaning and passenger check-in. They are often the first to respond in an emergency and provide vital assistance in bringing passengers to safe areas of the airport.

The research also found a downward trend in the number of airport staff and increased workloads for those still with jobs. For example, at Hamburg Airport in Germany, there were 531 workers per million passengers in 2006. By 2011, there were only 466 workers per million passengers. Adding insult to injury, increasingly overworked and stressed workers are seeing a steady fall in their wages.

For all these reasons, we are proud to support Airports United and all its workers. Already the new network has issued a clear wake-up call to the aviation industry that there is a serious problem at its core that needs to be addressed.

To kick things off, on June 1, 2016 they organized demonstrations, flew banners, and handed out leaflets in 33 airports across Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Ireland, South Korea, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United States to highlight their demands for economic justice, safety, and security at work.

The next day they took their hard-hitting message — that while airlines are getting richer their workers are being paid less, worked more, and having their job security torn away — direct to the industry executives meeting at the International Air Transport Association annual general meeting in Dublin, Ireland. You can see photos of all these actions here and follow the group’s progress on Twitter using the hashtage #AirportWorkers.

[pullquote]Workers took their hard-hitting message directly to industry executives.[/pullquote]

It was a great start. And it was quickly followed by more good news. Airports United member union the FNV (Netherlands Trade Union Confederation) has scored a double victory at Schiphol Airport.

Thanks to the union’s efforts, national airline KLM has been forced to drop from collective bargaining agreement negotiations its plans to outsource 6,000 of the 17,000 workers’ jobs at the airport. And just as FNV member and Schiphol ground handler Walter Van der Vlies was speaking to the press in Dublin, Schiphol and its security companies were agreeing to employ at least 40 more security workers, reduce standing time, and introduce climate control.

Airports United has an important message and an important mission. There’s no doubt that it has started with a bang. It’s equally certain that it will continue to grow and fight for the changes that have to be made for the sake of all of us — passenger and worker alike — who want a safe, fair and efficient aviation industry.

Steve Cotton is the general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

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