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Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific’s US-based workers vote to unionise, after anger at threat to retirement benefits

Vote comes only shortly after airline’s announcements of falling revenues and job losses to come

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 January, 2017, 1:14pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 January, 2017, 1:31pm

Cathay Pacific Airways’ US-based cabin crew will unionise after almost all of them voted to do so, rejecting the Hong Kong airline’s attitude towards workers’ pay and conditions.

The vote – during which 97 per cent of voters backed the motion – creates a potentially more adversarial dynamic to employee relations, by making industrial action easier to launch. It follows uproar when bosses told hundreds of flight attendants they faced losing welfare benefits and social security protections.

All of Cathay Pacific’s 411 US flight attendants’ pay and contract negotiations will now be handled by that country’s Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), a labour union.

Hundreds of US-based cabin crew face loss of welfare benefits as Cathay Pacific halts payments

It all began when the company discovered it had for several years been contributing to a US government-run benefits scheme, despite an obscure rule exempting non-American employers with staff working on non-American-registered aircraft paying in.

Upon that discovery, bosses told workers that both parties – the airline and the staff – must both have contributed to the schemes, and since it could not make such payments under the law, such contributions, past and future, were void.

Workers faced the loss of government retirement payouts and post-retirement health insurance protection.

The AFA welcomed its new Cathay Pacific members, claiming that the airline’s unionised staff in Britain and Canada have higher pay with better benefits and job security.

“It’s past time for these hard-working US-based flight attendants to have a contract that lifts up good American jobs,” Sara Nelson, the union’s international president, said.

An AFA spokeswoman said it was “extremely disappointed” with the airline’s response to members’ retirement and disability benefits being voided.

She added: “Today’s 97 per cent vote in favour of joining AFA sends a strong message to Cathay that management needs to work with us to restore the benefits cabin crew have earned.”

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But Cathay Pacific said it was “committed to resolving this issue and providing clarity to our cabin crew employees in the US in a situation that is complex. While these efforts are ongoing, we appreciate our cabin crew’s patience and understanding as we work to rectify this situation.”

The airline said it looked forward to a “harmonious and productive relationship” with the union.

Cathay Pacific employs more than 10,000 cabin crew workers. The US is the largest base for its flight attendants outside Hong Kong.

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That its workers in the US could more easily seek higher salaries and benefits might add one more headache for the airline, already facing financial trouble.

Cathay Pacific recently announced an unspecified number job losses to come after falling revenue and profits, blamed on increased competition and costly fuel bills. In the carrier’s 2016 half-yearly results, profits slid 82 per cent year on year to HK$353 million.