Mass Sick Leave Wins Pay Raise for Vietnam Protesting Pilots

More than one hundred Vietnam Airlines pilots called in sick during the New Year holiday amid growing discontent over salaries, an unusual mass protest by white collar workers in the Communist nation.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam said air safety was at risk after 117 pilots for the national carrier failed to turn up for work during the holiday, the Saigon Times reported Thursday. The mass sick leave risked disrupting Vietnam Airlines’ operations during a busy travel season, the paper quoted chief executive officer Pham Ngoc Minh as saying.

While labor unrest at factories is a frequent occurrence in Vietnam, industrial action by professionals is far less common. The government sent guards to protect factories damaged by workers in anti-China riots after China placed an oil rig in contested waters off Vietnam’s coast last year. Government officials view work stoppages by pilots as a national defense issue.

Minister of Transport Dinh La Thang told Vietnam Airlines to increase salaries and bonuses for skilled employees, including pilots, according to the Saigon Times. The mass sick leave occurred about a month before the Lunar Tet holiday, which falls on Feb. 19, a time when many Vietnamese travel to see family, according to Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

“It’s an unprecedented action for a professional group,” Thayer said by phone. “In a place like Vietnam, it’s got to be the government’s fault. They are in charge of everything.”

Vietnam Airlines, which raised $51.3 million in an initial public offering in November, faces competition for passengers and pilots from low-cost carrier VietJet Aviation Joint Stock Co. Carriers such as Vietnam Airlines pay higher salaries to attract foreign pilots to handle expanding routes, causing resentment among local pilots.

‘Breeds Unhappiness’

“The growth of the industry in Asia means there is insufficient numbers of pilots,” Andrew Herdman, director-general in Kuala Lumpur for the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, said by phone. “They recruit globally and they pay competitive international salaries. That breeds unhappiness. The issue is universal.”

Vietnam’s pilot labor issue is sensitive because the company is state-owned and in “an industry that cannot be seen to be cutting corners,” Stephen Norris, senior Southeast Asia analyst at Control Risks in Singapore, said in an e-mail. “It is very unusual to see an industrial action in such a sensitive industry and to see a group like pilots making an almost political point at a time when airline management and safety is in the spotlight in the region,” he added.

Six hundred of Vietnam Airlines’ pilots, or 70 percent of its cockpit crew, are local, Thanh Nien News reported Jan. 12. VietJetAir, which is recruiting pilots, has hired 10 from Vietnam Airlines, according to the newspaper.

A number of other Vietnam Airlines’ pilots have asked to leave their jobs, according to Thanh Nien.

Signing Contracts

It is common for carriers such as Vietnam Airlines to require pilots to sign contracts guaranteeing their service for a number of years because the airlines can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to train each pilot, Herdman said.

A large number of pilots calling in sick does not endanger the safety of air travel, he said, though it can create significant disruptions to service.

“Aviation is so complex,” Herdman said. “It doesn’t take much to disrupt overall operations. It gives them a little bargaining power.”

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