by Amrain Khan & Nokhaiz Sahi

LAHORE/ISLAMABAD: In a move to stall an impending strike by PIA employees, the government yesterday enforced the Essential Services (Maintenance) Act 1952 for six months, barring the airline staff from participating in any union activity.

Amid strong protests by the unions of Pakistan International Airlines employees against government plan to privatise the national flag carrier, the aviation division had sent a summary to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif which he approved on Monday.

“Any person found guilty of an offence under this Act shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year and shall also be liable to a fine,” the legislation reads.

The law essentially restricts union activity in state-administered sectors, including railways, postal services, telephone and affiliated services, and airports and seaports.

PIA employees had announced to suspend flight operation from today (Tuesday) but the government action has set a wave of fear among them as is reflected by pilots association (Palpa) decision to not stop its members from flying the planes.

The Essential Services Act was also invoked by the government in January 2013 during the doctors’ strike for better wages and regularisation, resulting in the sacking of young doctors for participating in a strike.

Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid, talking to reporters after the enforcement of the Act, made it clear that strict action will be taken against protesting employees. “Let me make clear that those who continue the strike will be treated as enemies of PIA and Pakistan and they will end up losing their jobs.”

Other employees’ unions however remain defiant and they have announced to go ahead with their strike plan. Prominent among them are the Joint Action Committee of PIA and Peoples Unity of PIA Employees Lahore.

Responding to a question, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid said flight operations will not be halted from tomorrow (Tuesday), adding that the government had made alternate arrangements of pilots and engineering staff to ensure that operations continue smoothly.

The government had promulgated an Ordinance to convert PIA into corporate entity but the opposition said it was aimed at privatisation, and defeated the government in the Senate by repealing the controversial ordinance.

The information minister in his media talk said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had made clear that no PIA employee will be laid off during privatisation, reiterating that the government will not tolerate strikes.

But the airline employees don’t trust the government and fear they would be laid off eventually. They have been staging protests and now they have threatened to go on strike from today to choke all PIA operations.

Soon after the PM’s decision to enforce the Essential Services Act was announced, Chief of Joint Action Committee of PIA’s protesting employees Capt Sohail Baloch told journalists that the body will go ahead with the strike they had announced earlier.

“We are going to go ahead with our plan. I don’t know what the restrictions are... but if there are any restrictions we are ready to face them, even if we are baton-charged,” he said. “The government has till 7am tomorrow for negotiations, after that we will go on strike,” he said.

Sajid Gujjar, president of Peoples Unity of PIA employees Lahore, said, “We will wait for government response by 7:30 since we have given the deadline of 7am to government for suspension of flight operation.”

But PIA Spokesman Danyal Gillani warned, “Government has imposed Essential Services Act in the airline under which heavy punishment can be awarded to employees who violate the Act”.

“We have also made alternate arrangements to keep the operation continued in case officials of PIA go on strike on Tuesday (today)”, he maintained.

The government warning seemed to have worked on pilots at least.

In an emergency meeting yesterday, Pakistan Air Line Pilots Association (Palpa) asked its members to go on duty but said they will not compromise on safety/security at any cost.

As per the AGM resolution, the association said it will maintain its principled stance to oppose privatization and support JACPIAE on the issue.

PIA spokesman said that during last week protest of airline employees the PIA has to bear the loss of Rs750 million and it was increasing day by day. He believed that if operation was suspended airline would not be able to pay salaries to its employees. He requested angry employees not to suspend flight operation.

While pleading his government’s case, Senator Minister Pervaiz Rashid referred to high staff to aircraft ratio and said that the PIA loses Rs30 billion every month. The government will look for strategic partners after six months for bringing the investment for better services of PIA, he added.

The minister said that the incumbent government improved the service of PIA and added 22 new aircraft.

He said that the government has finalised the alternate plan of flights operation and it would not be stopped at any cast. He said those going for strikes are inflicting losses to PIA and they would be dealt with iron hands.

On Monday in Lahore booking office of PIA remained closed and no work was done all the day. Two officers Rasheed and Ahmad Butt tried to get the offices opened but protesting workers confined them in a room and then after some time they were allowed to go home.

“We all are well connected and united, and on Tuesday (today) we will gather at Lahore airport at 7am and at 7:30 we will start working on suspension of flight operation”, an officer said seeking anonymity.

He said that they have planed to work ‘technically’ if government tried to ban their entry at airport. “We will puncture crew vans, catering vans engaged in supplying food and transporting crew to airport. No worker will perform duty at briefing counters, engineers will not be allowed go to aircraft, and pilot will not fly.”