Eddington in attack on 'naive' labour relations

CATHAY Pacific managing director Rod Eddington has attacked Hongkong's antiquated labour laws in his first public speech following the airline's high-profile flight attendants' strike.

He also highlighted the poor health of the aviation industry worldwide, warning that more airlines could go to the wall.

The airline chief attracted a record attendance when he appeared as guest speaker at yesterday's Australian Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Furama Hotel.

The chamber attracts about 120 guests to its regular meetings. Mr Eddington pulled in 260 guests, up 30 per cent on the chamber's record.

Mr Eddington spoke freely and openly without a script, answering a barrage of questions from the floor.

''I left Australia in 1974 to go to live in England for a few years. I left just as the iron ore miners were going on strike about whether there were three flavours of ice-cream in the staff canteen or four.

''So I was delighted when I went to England, but I walked into 'the winter of discontent' and the five years that followed it there, so when I came to Hongkong I thought 'thank God I'm getting away from all that'.'' He continued: ''I think Hongkong frankly as a community and as a business entity is extremely naive about industrial relations issues.

''Most companies in this town don't have a union or if they do they don't have a collective bargaining agreement.

''The aviation industry worldwide has always been a reasonably well-unionised one so to some extent Cathay is the exception to the rule.

''The current rules of the game here in Hongkong are pretty straightforward. You can go on strike any time you like about anything and the moment you go on strike your employer can fire you, so it is a pretty heavy-handed balance.

''In our case the strike took place after a meeting of 114 members of the cabin crew union and there are 3,200 members of the union.

''In most countries that would be an illegal strike. You've got to have a secret ballot and you need majority support.

''It showed there are a number of holes in the law as well as in the understanding at legislative level and in the community generally.'' The aviation industry as a whole lost about US$4 billion in 1991, according to International Air Transport Association figures.

The 1992 figure is not yet available, but Mr Eddington said United Airlines lost $1 billion last year, Air France and Lufthansa had together lost another $1 billion, and closer to home Japan Air Lines had lost $400 million.

He warned that Cathay's profit margins were declining quickly and blamed Hongkong inflation.

It was Cathay's attempts to contain cost inflation that led to the 17-day Flight Attendants' Union strike.