BA must realise that Unite members will not back down in the fight for fair pay

10th January, 2017 5:00 pm

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Jorge*, a member of Unite, describes his experiences as part of the BA cabin crew.

As BA’s mixed fleet cabin crew begin their 48-hour strike today over poverty pay,  I want to explain the struggles I faced in this job.

I started working for British Airways in 2010, just as the airline introduced its new mixed fleet, made up of cabin crew working on both long- and short-haul flights.

Despite promises from BA of much higher salaries, and their repeated misinformation to the media, mixed fleet crew languish on wages barely above the minimum wage – average annual earnings, including allowances are £16,000, with basic pay rates starting at just £12,192. To top up that £12,000 basic, crew need to fly in order to qualify for the £3 per hour subsistence allowance, which for some reason BA has decreed will be 30p less an hour than the pilots receive, even though we are to eat in the same cities and very often the same hotels.

My take home pay amounted to maybe £1,500 a month, including allowances. Even though I was working full-time in an unimaginably draining job, it wasn’t enough to pay all my bills – I was receiving housing benefit from the council.

Yes, BA gives you an allowance for food but it’s nowhere near enough if you want to stay healthy. Crew certainly will not be able to afford to buy the food that from Thursday they will be selling on the aircraft when BA launches its link up with Marks & Spencer.

In-flight delights, such as the bacon roll (£4.95), or the healthy granola option, are way beyond the budget of your average crew member.

And it sticks in the throat that M&S staff selling the very same products in the airport stores take home around £6,000 more per year than cabin crew flogging the produce in the skies. If M&S can pay their staff a more reasonable wage in what is also often called a “cut throat” industry, what is stopping BA from doing the same? Is it boardroom greed?

I was lucky in that I had a small business as a sideline to help support my income but many of my colleagues would try to scrimp and save by spending as little on food as possible.

I knew people who virtually ate Pot Noodles only – not so good for a job that is physically demanding. Chronic stress and fatigue were common problems among the team, and unlike crew at other airlines, BA mixed fleet crew did not get proper breaks to help them recuperate from jet lag.

I would do multiple long-haul flights to Las Vegas over a short time period with only two-day rest breaks in between. At first you can manage for a while but eventually it all builds up and the fatigue sets in – you can barely go about your day.

Passengers, too, are hurt by mixed fleet crew’s low pay and poor terms and conditions. There is a radically high turnover among mixed fleet so you constantly have to be coaching new crew members. BA may claim that there is a high turnover at budget carriers but this doesn’t necessarily pose a long-term problem for the service because on-board these flyers the service is relatively simple. With mixed fleet, you are dealing with a mixture of long-haul and short-haul flights, with various different types of aircraft and with four different classes on long-haul flights.

Without a long-term, well-trained fleet, the service provided by BA – which still poses as a premium carrier, not a no-frills airline – will inevitably suffer. Crew fear that safety best practice falls through the cracks as well.

I’ve always been a fast learner but it took me two full years to become entirely confident about all the safety and security features of the different aircraft we flew on – but most people on mixed fleet don’t last nearly that long in the job.

I would urge passengers to try to see the bigger picture. Mixed fleet crew are not greedy; they just want to be able to provide the best and safest service they can but that’s just not possible on such low pay. Anyone who is truly committed to the job will go to another airline where the pay and terms and conditions are better, which in turn empowers you to provide a better service.

In the end, BA’s intransigence over Unite members’ demands makes little sense in the face of one incontrovertible fact – that there’s no business case to be made for keeping mixed fleet crew on poverty pay.

British Airways makes billions in profits and what mixed fleet cabin crew are asking for – simply a more liveable wage – will barely make a dent in these profits. In fact, I suspect that what the company in spending trying to break this strike far outstrips the few quid it would take to solve this dispute honourably.

But BA seems to prefer to grind the workforce down. They know that mixed fleet crew are young and often don’t know their rights. And they do everything they can to keep things that way – for example, they’ll put a vaguely worded clause in the contract that makes it seem as though you cannot join a union.

As ever with BA, their heavy-handedness backfires. The solidarity among the crew is strong, as we saw on the picket lines today, and Unite’s membership among mixed fleet has swollen by over 800 since this dispute began.

Winning better pay so that we can “fly to serve” to the best of our abilities is the object of this dispute. But BA should beware. This strike is also an opportunity for young cabin crew members to assert themselves, to stand up for their rights.

And we won’t back down without justice.

The author’s name has been changed to protect privacy.

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