Cathay Pacific was threatened with fresh industrial turmoil last night after a staff union accused the company of trying to employ cheap labour. The Hong Kong Airline Officers' Association has warned of a new low in relations after it emerged that Cathay was recruiting pilots in Malaysia. But the company disputed the union claims and insisted the scheme was still at an exploratory stage. John Findlay, the union's general secretary, said: 'You don't advertise in a newspaper and set up interviews if the scheme is merely intended to be exploratory. This breaks the spirit and detail of the agreement reached in 1999 over conditions of service where Cathay base their crews. Malaysia is not on that list. Hong Kong is meant to be the Asia base.' The row became public after the Sunday Morning Post discovered that Cathay Pacific had placed the advert in the Star, an English-language newspaper in Malaysia. It offers first officer freight pilots M$163,848 (HK$344,888) in the first year - about the same as a second officer in Hong Kong - and the chance to move to Hong Kong after three years' service. Mr Findlay said that was a lower salary than a first officer with comparable experience would expect to get in Hong Kong. 'They are dangling the carrot of passenger flights within three years but there is no guarantee they will get the job,' he said. 'Posts are subject to seniority and these first officers will be junior to second officers in Hong Kong. The guys in Hong Kong will get first pick.' Rosita Ng, Cathay's corporate communications manager, refused to comment on Mr Findlay's claims, citing 'commercial confidentiality'. But she said: 'This is not cheap labour. Cathay will pay these pilots what they should get according to market forces. As to existing agreements with staff, Cathay is not breaking them. I am sure that if [the union] have concerns they will talk to our management about them. 'This is a commercial decision. We are hoping to recruit pilots because Cathay is always looking to recruit the best pilots in the world. 'At this stage I would say that we are at the exploratory stage and will be looking to see if the candidates are good enough.' It is understood that Cathay is only targeting Malaysia, which has seen its main carrier, Malaysian Airlines, fall into serious financial trouble. Trainee Malaysian pilots, posting comments on independent air-crew Web sites, have called the package attractive. But Cathay pilots have warned them they would not be welcomed by air crews. Mr Findlay said: 'This could lead to a worsening industrial relations situation because it flies in the face of good practice.'