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The Tiger Strikes: Industrial Action at Tigerair

Tigerair hit the news this week as their pilots commenced industrial action. It is planned to last from 4-9 January and 11-18 January, where pilots will cease work on certain occasions.

Tigerair pilots who are members of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) will start by ceasing work on annual leave days, rostered days off (RDOs) and days free of duty.

AFAP stated that most pilots employed by the airline work on days off and that the airline largely relies on this type of labour. Pilots exercising their discretion not to work on these days off therefore can have a significant effect on the airline’s business.

No doubt this it has the potential to cause disruptions to flights during the January holiday period. However, Tigerair say differently on their website: “Tigerair wishes to reassure customers that it expects minimal disruption to its services as a result of the industrial action due to its pro-active contingency planning. Importantly, no work stoppages are proposed by the pilots”.

AFAP are pushing for a 2.5 per cent yearly increase in pilot pay over two years. An in-principle agreement was even reached in May last year, but talks broke down leading to the industrial action. Members of the Association for Virgin Australia Group Pilots (VIPA) are also participating in the industrial action.

Tigerair is already a budget airline prone to disruption. The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics’ statistics show that 40 per cent of its flights in November arrived late, whilst 6 per cent of the flights that month were cancelled.

Tigerair and the unions will be at the Fair Work Commission on 10 January to conciliate the matter. The union reported it feels that there is “no alternative left” other than to strike after two years of negotiating a new enterprise agreement.

Before Christmas, Tigerair pilots threatened to engage in a “go-slow” type of industrial action. This was, however, called off because the workers had not notified Tigerair properly of the industrial action.

Industrial action in the aviation industry

The aviation industry is no stranger to industrial action. Everybody in the sector – and probably most of the Australian public – remember the Qantas dispute in 2011. Whilst this Tigerair dispute is nothing of the kind of strike we saw in 2011, it is still important for everyone who has employees in the business to understand industrial action and how it works.

Just a few months ago, employees of Airservices Australia announced a 24-hour strike after failing to come up with an agreement on pay and working conditions with their employers. That strike was organised by the Community and Public Sector Union.

It is also happening globally. Ryanair cancelled over 100 flights in September 2018 when German pilots walked off the job over a dispute about pay and conditions. There was also a two-week strike at LOT, Poland’s national airline, over a dispute about employment contracts in October 2018.

“Industrial action” in Australia has a broad definition in the law. It doesn’t just mean ‘going on strike’. Essentially, it means performing work differently from how it’s normally performed, and that can include banning, limiting or restricting the performance of work. It also includes lockouts of employees by their employers.

‘Industrial action’ can only happen lawfully if it is ‘protected’. That means it can only go forward if it has been allowed to go forward by the Fair Work Commission, Australia’s national employment relations tribunal. Employees cannot go on strike for whatever reason. It has to be in relation to bargaining for an enterprise agreement, and at least 50 per cent of employees need to vote ‘yes’ to go through with it in what is called a ‘Protected Action Ballot’, which is usually run by the Australian Electoral Commission.

It is a rigid, complex procedure contained in Part 3-3 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth). The Fair Work Commission has published an easy-to-read benchbook on industrial action that is very useful to refer to if need be.

Airline professionals should also be aware of section 84 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth) (and its State equivalent). This allows workers (not just employees) to “cease, or refuse to carry out, work” if the worker has a a “reasonable concern” that the work would expose them to a “serious risk to the worker’s health or safety” if there’s an imminent exposure to a hazard.

If you are a member of an industrial association such as Aviation/Aerospace Australia or the Aviation Law Association of Australia and New Zealand, or if you are a member of a trade union, consider contacting them to find out how industrial action affects you.