Airlines jettison workers; still want no strings bailout

Mélissa Savard, Air Transat flight attendent

WESTJET HAS DECIDED TO PLAY FAIR, KINDA. They have decided they will obey the labour law when it comes to worker layoffs. AirCanada not so much. Both airlines still want special treatment.

Westjet and Air Canada still want the federal government to bail them out—as do all major Canadian airlines—but Westjet has backed off a request to be exempt from living up to the legal protections workers have when laid off.

Westjet has laid off almost 15,000 employees. The Canada Labour Code requires 16 weeks’ notice ahead of a mass layoff. WestJet asked the federal government to exempt them from that requirement.

The airline told the House of Commons health committee on June 23 it no longer sought that exemption.

Air Canada, however, has not withdrawn its application for an exemption. Air Canada has laid off more than 20,000 workers—more than half of its 38,000 employees.

Unions demand job protections

“The government and Air Canada are washing their hands of this devastating situation,” said Wesley Lesosky, President of the Air Canada Component of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

“First and foremost, the federal government needs to step in and ensure that airline workers have jobs to come back to once the pandemic is over,” said Julie Roberts, a flight attendant with Air Transat and president of CUPE’s Airline Division.

In the meantime the union proposes that flight attendants receive an Employment Insurance top-up to keep themselves whole during the crisis.

“Approximately 11,000 flight attendants in Canada are out of work right now, and it’s clear the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) program isn’t doing what it was supposed to,” said Roberts.

Air Canada has opted not to reapply for the CEWS program. A move that can only increase the anxiety for the thousands of workers it has laid off.

Begging for a bailout

Major Canadian airlines are pressing the federal government for an aid package, perhaps as high as $5 billion, to help them survive the pandemic.

Airlines have been tapping into Canada’s wage subsidy program to hire back thousands of laid-off workers, but say they need an infusion of cash, loans and a freeze on taxes and fees to prop up the industry.

Consumer activists demand that if a taxpayer bailout is on the way, it should come with strings attached banning airlines from paying executive bonuses and requiring them to reimburse consumers for cancelled flights due to the pandemic.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has already waived airport authorities’ rent fees, worth an estimated $331 million. Morneau’s office said the government is still evaluating “all options to support the industry.”

Consumer activists demand refunds

Any bailout must include strict criteria to ensure taxpayer money isn’t misused say public interest activists.

John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said Ottawa should focus on “making sure companies couldn’t skim off excess profits through the bailout by giving dividends to their shareholders with that money, or giving large executive bonuses.

Canadian airlines refuse to refund the price of tickets for thousands of flights cancelled due to the pandemic. Executives from Air Canada, WestJet and Air Transat mounted their latest defence of this policy before a House of Commons health committee on June 22. When pressed by MPs the executives once again defended their decision to issue vouchers as opposed to full refunds.

There are two proposed class-against lawsuits against major Canadian airlines seeking full refunds for passengers whose flights were cancelled during the pandemic, according to the consumer group Air Passenger Rights. That same group has also taken the Canadian Transportation Agency to court over the issue.

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