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Interview

Union urges Thai Airways to include its voice in rehab plan

Chairman claims some workers' rights and benefits already curtailed

Thai Airways International Workers' Union chairman Sorayuth Homsukhon speaks during an interview. (Photo by Masayuki Yuda)

BANGKOK -- A union of Thai Airways International workers is urging the company's board to incorporate its opinions in the upcoming rehabilitation plan because workers' cooperation will be critical for the national flag carrier to recover.

"We plan to create a proposal to make sure workers' rights and benefits remain protected through the rehabilitation," said Sorayuth Homsukhon, chairman of the Thai Airways International Workers' Union (TGWU), in an exclusive interview with the Nikkei Asian Review.

TG is the airline's code designated by the International Air Transport Association.

"Rehabilitation planners will not succeed, if they do not take employees at the operational level into account, or if they don't take reasonable care of their employees," wrote Yossayong Homasawin, vice chairman of the union, in a separate written interview.

On Monday, the Central Bankruptcy Court gave a verdict that allows Thai Airways to enter court-supervised rehabilitation after years of money-losing management and operations forced it to abandon self-resuscitation.

The court also endorsed a list of rehabilitation planners proposed by the airline, including the current board members and the consultancy EY Corporate Advisory Services. "We will be in negotiations with creditors this quarter, and a plan will be ready by the first quarter of next year," said the airline's acting president, Chansin Treenuchagron, after receiving the court decision.

Among the planners are former Justice Minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, who was an adviser to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, and former Thai Airways President Piyasvasti Amranand, who made the airline briefly profitable during his term from 2009 to 2012. "In the list of planners, we have someone we can trust," said Sorayuth, without naming who.

"The union should be involved in making the plan, given that the rehabilitation could not be accomplished by the management team alone. It needs cooperation and willingness from all the employees," wrote Yossayong.

The TGWU, officially established on Aug. 4, is one of Thai Airways' four current unions. The carrier lost its state enterprise status when the Ministry of Finance lowered its shareholding to below 50% in May. The old union, which had been formed under the State Enterprise Labor Act, was dissolved automatically, although the TGWU claims the dissolution was invalid and is in the process of appealing. The old union had roughly 11,000 members.

Among the four new groups, the TGWU considers itself the principal replacement for the old union because it includes 10 board members of the former union. It declined to disclose the current number of its members but expects to have at least 5,000, making it the largest of the four registered unions. Having 5,000 members would let it represent well over 20% of Thai Airways employees, a legally required proportion to officially file proposals to management.

Thailand's Central Bankruptcy Court on Monday allowed Thai Airways to enter court-supervised rehabilitation.   © Reuters

Whether representing state or private workers, a union can only do so much, according to Sorayuth. Thai law prohibits transportation workers from striking because that would severely affect Southeast Asia's second-largest economy.

Sorayuth said his team will start filing proposals even before the union gains the required 20% portion, as some workers' rights and benefits have already been curtailed. "In the previous administrative regulations, we were given 24 days of paid leave," said the union chairman, but the new regulations give workers the statutory minimum. Thailand's Labor Protection Act entitles employees to not less than six days of paid leave after working for a full year; the employer may increase that for employees with longer work records.

Thai Airways workers came under scrutiny when an investigative team designated by the Ministry of Transport released findings on what could have brought the carrier its deep financial troubles. Excessive overtime reported by engineers were part of the findings. One employee claimed 2.95 million baht ($94,000) for working 3,354 hours -- 419 days -- of overtime, according to the team's report.

"Such an attendance record could not pass without the help of his or her superintendents," said Sorayuth, implying that poor governance -- not workers' ethics -- was to blame in this case.

Two other union members with engineering backgrounds provided different perspectives. They claimed that the 3,354 hours of overtime was reported over the course of two years, not the one year widely reported in media. The union members suspect that the case was revealed in a way calculated to shift blame onto workers, although even half of the reported overtime admittedly exceeds the airline's annual cap of 1,500 hours.

Sorayuth took a lukewarm stance on whether Thai Airways should regain its state enterprise status after the end of the rehabilitation process, which is expected to last for five to seven years. "Whether it's a state enterprise or not, large companies have bureaucracy within them. Decisions are made slowly," he said. "To survive against international competition, that becomes a problem."

The existence of multiple unions has pros and cons during a time of rehabilitation. Workers can choose which one to join based on how each represents employees. However, if the unions cannot coordinate, the company can take advantage of the smaller ones and strip rights and benefits.

Another Asian national flag carrier, Japan Airlines, went through a massive rehabilitation process from 2010 to 2011. Its unions ended up accepting some adverse terms, such as reduced pensions and even dismissals.

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