By Conrado de Quiros
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 21:39:00 09/14/2010
Filed Under: Labor, Social Issues, Air Transport
THE FIRST time I saw it was maybe 15 years ago, at an American Airlines flight. The fellow was a steward, uniformed like the others, trim like the others, capable like the others. With one exception. His hair was gray, his skin was blotched, and his face bore wrinkles. I figured he must be in his late 60s or early 70s.
He wasn’t just polite. He was pleasant, engaging the passengers in banter, for those who wanted to banter. He had a smile for everyone. After a while the novelty of his appearance (for me at least—it didn’t seem to strike the other passengers as so) wore off and he faded into the woodwork, or the cabin, just another member of the crew.
Soon after that, the sight became so common in various airlines you didn’t notice it anymore.
But the first time made you ask: Why on earth (or in the skies) not? Why should stewardesses look like the Girl from Ipanema? Flight attendants are not there to serve patrons, they are there to serve passengers. They are not there to entertain customers, particularly in their times of dire want, they are there to help commuters, particularly in their times of dire need.
That is the question Fasap (the Flight Attendants and Stewards Association of the Philippines) is asking PAL (Philippine Airlines). That is the answer Fasap is giving PAL.
For which it has filed a notice of strike.
I’ve known Fasap for about a decade and a half now and known it to be one of the most reasonable unions in the world. That is the reason for its success. It does not rush headlong into strikes. It does so only after exhausting other means. Other unions would do well to learn from it. Reasonableness is its middle name.
The working conditions of its female crew suck. That is the core of its cause. That is the reason it has served a notice to strike. It has nothing to do with more pay, more allowances, more benefits. It has everything to do with basic, minimum, elemental, justice. Two-thirds of Fasap’s 1,564 members are women.
Two things in particular Fasap wants to change.
The first is for PAL to scrap its de facto policy of criminalizing pregnancy for flight attendants. There is no other way to put it. You are a PAL stewardess and you get pregnant, you get to file a leave of absence without pay. The leave amounts to close to a year, given the two months for normal delivery and three months for caesarean you are required to take afterward. That period is taken away from your number of years of service. If you get pregnant three times in the 20 years that you work for PAL as a flight attendant, you will register only 17 years served.
That applies only to flight attendants. It’s different for the ground crew. They may work till they are about to deliver, have their 60-day leave paid for by the Social Security System, and come back to work shortly afterward. None of it is taken away from their record.
What makes the policy exceedingly laughable—the kind that makes you cry—is that male flight attendants who take a paternity leave do not have their leave taken out of their years of service. The policy is clear: You are innocent if you get your wife (or mistress) pregnant, but guilty if you yourself get pregnant.
Fasap in fact is simply asking for the period of pregnancy not to be discounted from the flight attendant’s years of service. The rest—what pay or benefits she should get in the course of her nearly-one-year leave—remains subject to negotiation. You can’t get more minimum than that. Other unions would criticize Fasap for being too tame. PAL is accusing it of being too spoiled.
The second, which bears directly on the first, is for PAL to stop parading its flight attendants as eye candy. There is no other way to put it. Since the mid-1990s, PAL has set the retirement age for flight attendants at 40. Too early to get SSS benefits and too late to start again elsewhere. The retirement age for the ground crew ranges from 60 to 65.
PAL says it is merely thinking about the flight attendants’ welfare—they shouldn’t be flying past that age. That is refuted by several things. One is that other airlines now routinely have flight attendants who are senior citizens. There have been no reported cases of them tottering and dying from a heart attack while serving drinks. Two is that the retirement age for PAL’s pilots is 60 for both men and women. Why should the risks be higher for flight attendants than for pilots? And three is that the line administrators, the officers who fly to rate the flight attendants’ performance, retire at 65.
Elsewhere, the point is to be fit. But PAL’s point is that fit means young. Fit means not being pregnant. Fit means fit to ogle, fantasize on, flirt with. That is the only explanation for the patent discrimination. That might have been acceptable once with airlines, during Cro-Magnon times, but that is no longer so today. For good reason: It is an exploitative view of flight attendants, and the world will have nothing to do with it. Flight attendants undergo training, undergo skills-building, undergo ordeals with exceptionally rough flights and even more exceptionally rough passengers. They are not in flights to pretend, they are in flights to attend. That is why they are called flight attendants.
What Fasap wants is merely the same retirement terms as the ground crew and the pilots. It does even better, which is to propose that retirement be based on years of service—counting pregnancies—and not age. Other unions would criticize Fasap for being too restrained. PAL is accusing it of being too out of its mind.
Well, truth has a way of coming out, these days more than others. Quite simply, the flight attendants’ notice of strike serves notice:
PAL is not Pegasus, and flight attendants are not GROs.
Lucio C. Tan (Chairman and CEO)
Harry C. Tan (Vice-Chairman)