Monday, April 21, 2008

SAS Scandinavian Airlines' Asian cabin crew dispute

SAS logoLast month I reported that Scandinavian airline SAS went on trial in Copenhagen for allegedly employing Asian flight attendants without Danish work permits. The airline also was accused of paying the Asian cabin crew members substandard wages.

The matter was heard in the Copenhagen City Court, and the Copenhagen Post reports that SAS was found guilty of the charges and fined DKK 900,000. SAS has appealed the verdict to the Danish High Court.

Meanwhile, legislation has been proposed in the Danish Parliament to allow SAS, which is partly owned by the Danish government, to use Chinese personnel on its route between Copenhagen and Beijing. Now the Copenhagen Post is reporting that if parliament does not allow SAS to use Asian cabin crew, the airline has said it may re-register its planes in Norway or Sweden.

The Copenhagen Post article quotes Lars Sandahl Sørensen, CEO of SAS International, who said, "Although it's a solution we'd rather avoid, we might be forced into it."

Planes registered in Denmark are required to operate with personnel who are legally allowed to work in Denmark. The same permit rule may exist in Sweden and Norway as well, but Sørensen said, "...if it does then it would only apply to those countries' own airspaces, and not to Denmark." In other words, the plan seems to be to fly the Beijing-Copenhagen route with planes registered outside of Denmark, in order to dodge the Danish work permit rule.

Sørensen said that employing Chinese crews has nothing to do with paying them lower wages and everything to do with service.

"It's integral for us to have Chinese cabin crews on our flights to China because half the passengers are Chinese," he said. "And it's hard to provide good service for them if we can't communicate."

Sørensen said SAS could not pay the Chinese flight attendants Danish wages because it would create a huge salary disparity between them and their colleagues working on the ground in mainland China. The Chinese crew members earn around 10,000 kroner less per month than their Danish counterparts.
This argument sounds similar to excuses given by Air New Zealand for paying its Chinese cabin crew a fraction of what it pays New Zealand nationals to do identical work. Verner Lundtoft, president of the Cabin Attendants Union, says that the SAS threat to sidestep Danish law is "appalling," and I agree.
"We're talking about a partially state-owned and listed company attempting to avoid the requirements of Danish law," said Lundtoft. "It's completely unacceptable."

Lundtoft pointed out that none of SAS' competitors have employed Asian personnel on their China routes without providing equal working conditions.

"Finnair says it pays their Asian crews Finnish wages, Lufthansa has Chinese cabin crew members earning German scale pay, and Air France has interpreters on board its Asian flights," said Lundtoft.
Apparently SAS can legally re-register its planes in Sweden and Norway, as the airline is a Scandinavian-operated company. It remains to be seen if this will solve the labor issue, however.

It's time for all international air carriers to pay all crew equally for equal work, regardless of ethnicity or national origin. No excuses!

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