Ryanair’s problem is not pay, it’s the working conditions they offer

Maria-Jesús Belizón

On September 21st 2017, Ryanair CEO’s continued a five-day saga of flight cancellations noting that they “have some goodies to discuss with pilots”. In a series of press conferences, the general public was invited to consider and acknowledge the longstanding service Ryanair has offered over the years. When one delves into that big picture, the problematic cancellations are nothing compared to the number of flights Ryanair has offered in its lifetime. For Michael, 2,100 flights seem to be small potatoes.

However, his argument shifted towards the reflection of pilot salary levels. Once more, Michael presented the broader picture: pilots earn between €150,00 and €180,000 for the simple task of navigating the skies in charge of the lives of a few hundred passengers. For him, they are overrated “taxi drivers”.  But Michael insists because… how do these salaries sound to your average Joe-So that travels with Ryanair and that is listening to him on the radio or watching the news?  They sound high, very high. Ryanair pilots earn more than a Full Professor in a public Irish university. They earn probably the same as some experienced senior managers in Dublin. And is that fair? Any spectator’s first reaction to this can be: are we going to defend these pilots? And why should they earn that much? There is indeed research evidence to state the added value of pilots once they have passed their specialised education and minimum number of experience in simulators and actual aircraft is low and remains constant over their career. This is not new to us. It is also known that the added-value in airlines is produced by their cabin crew. Hence, one can also argue that pilots are perhaps overestimated. It can be a valid position depending on the rewarding criteria each organisation uses. In any case, Michael would like to trade with his pilots for an extra €10,000, buying out their annual leave. After all, in this day and age, practically anything can be bought with money.  Or can’t it?

Perceptions of pay and fairness vary across sectors of operations and also across countries and cultures. They might as well be the focus of some discussions as the Luas drivers’ salary level was a few months ago. However, the bottom-line problem is not pay, it is the remaining working conditions that are offered along with that pay and the ideas they embodied.

James Atkinson, a former Ryanair pilot, tells us in The Guardian that “some of Ryanair’s pilots are employees of the company, on Irish contracts; but most are not. The airline uses a clever scheme to mask most of its pilots as “independent service providers”. These “contractors” wear the same uniform, have the same company ID and fly the same general schedule as employee pilots do, but are employees of no one. They sign contracts with one of just a few agencies supplying pilot services exclusively to Ryanair, and these contracts are written as take-it-or-leave-it offers, subject to no bargaining of any kind. Employee pilots have somewhat better working conditions than contractors, and they have a small pension scheme; but they are far behind even their peers at easyJet (unionised), to say nothing of pilots at legacy airlines such as Lufthansa or KLM/Air France. People have trouble believing it, but it’s absolutely true: no pilot or other staff member at Ryanair is entitled to even a free bottle of water while working. If you want it, you buy it”.

There are two underlying high-stake issues present in this declaration. One is the superficially unimportant problem of the bottle of water. Should a society be concerned about providing or not providing a bottle of water during working hours? The excessively tight control Ryanair exert over its workforce mirrors the concept of the neutral worker, the disembodied worker that Joan Acker, American sociologist, brought to light. Exploring the antecedents of women discrimination and gender inequality, Joan explains that most organisations are designed according to the disembodied worker who exists only for the job and job tasks. Such hypothetical worker does not have have a body (and thus, can not be thirsty), emotions or other imperatives of existence that impinge upon the job. Thus, those existential imperatives that fall outside the boundaries of the job are not catered for.

And yet, the job is not only taken but also realised by human beings, whose nature includes a body, emotions, and other needs. Organisational data analysis and scientific management aiming at cost minimisation do not necessarily have to be viewed through suspicious lenses and they can, indeed, contribute to bettering efficiency levels. However, should our society accept companies using these tools along with a dehumanised approach to managing their people? Should society tolerate companies whose HR practices do not take into account employees basic needs?

The second issue is the challenge Ryanair employees face: the nature of their contract and status along with their rights to be represented collectively. The bypassing of industrial relations legislation in host countries that Ryanair has orchestrated has been unprecedented. US multinational organisations have been predominantly union avoidant wherever these strategies were possible, mostly in liberal market economies. More rarely, in highly regulated labour markets, US multinationals would offer attractive individual compensation packages coupled with other appreciated benefits in training and development among other areas in order to discourage their employees to engage in collective representation. There is evidence to say that this approach has also been successful in many instances but has not been commonplace. On the contrary, right-based industrial relations systems such as those in France, Italy, Spain and other European countries are usually host locations where multinationals are used to comply with industrial relations legislation. One could argue that these nations constitute a double-edge sword for Ryanair: they offer a cheaper labour than the Green Island but it comes with a price: the possibility of engaging with collective employee representation. However, this is not the case. Over the past days, Spanish Ryanair pilots have reported earning more than pilots working for other airlines in the Iberian country such as Vueling or Iberia. Yet, Spanish pilots employed by Ryanair are ‘autonomos’ (freelancers) and they are contracted through a broker, agencies based in Ireland or in the UK. Since 2010, most of these ‘employees’ are paying taxes in Spain as a result of the Ministry of Transport’s intervention. However, it is worth noting that by being ‘autonomos’ they lose their right to be represented as they legally work for themselves.

Oftentimes, they are asked to join other pilots to form a company based in countries with unusual fiscal systems and once Ryanair wish to rescind their work, they break the contractual relationship.  Needless to say that Spanish pilots working under the form of these companies do not pay taxes in Spain. The notion of collective employee representation in these circumstances is also a moot point.

In both instances, pilots earn by the hour and this has some negative consequences. Pilots often fly when they are ill, which is never advisable according to safety requirements. Perhaps we need to turn again to that concept of the disembodied worker, the worker that has no voice. This worker has been crystallised by Ryanair’s stratagems to minimise cost at any price, including not respecting their human dignity or circumventing the legal system in intricate and worrying ways.

Perhaps, it is a good time to call the attention of our politicians, our public representatives, in order to ask them to work closely on labour issues with multinational organisations. On issues that are at stake and that are not proper of a society that describes itself as postmodern.

Maria-Jesús Belizón is Assistant Professor of International Human Resource Management at UCD Dublin, and a member of CERCnet.