PIA COMES UNDER FIRE IN SENATE

Opposition moves adjournment motion against the termination of 300 low-grade employees

SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI, Bureau Chief, Islamabad
Feb 05 - 11, 2007

The performance of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) remained under fire during the last week - first b y the Public Accounts Committee and then a debate on the affairs of the national carrier in the Senate to which the treasury benches agreed under mounting pressure from the opposition. Perhaps it was the severest attack the PIA ever faced in its history during which wild charges of inefficiency, favouritism, hefty salary packages and corruption were levelled against its senior management.

The Public Accounts Committee in its meeting had taken a very serious view of the rising financial losses of PIA amounting to an alarming figure of almost Rs.1 billion a month. The committee had also strongly observed the hefty salary package of top management and the induction of consultants and foreign cabin crew at unreasonably high salaries. The PIA Chairman, who was summoned by the committee to explain the reasons, admitted that the airline is in a serious financial crisis with overall losses to the tune of almost nine billion rupees during the period from January to September 2006. In the corporate report for this period these losses have been attributed to high fuel costs and over-employment.

In the meanwhile, the opposition members had moved an adjournment motion in the Senate regarding the termination of 300 employees in lower grades by the PIA on the excuse of financial crunch of the corporation while inducting consultants at the posts of top executive with hefty salary packages. The Senate was stunned when the salary packages of the top executives of the PIA were revealed in the house. The package of each top official runs into lakhs of rupees per month while two consultants were being paid at the rate of Rs. 5000 per hour.

This led even the acting Chairman Senate Jan Muhamamad Jamali to observe: "All of us should get employment in PIA rather than performing as senators". The opposition said that on the one hand PIA was sacking 1,509 employees in lower grade on the pretext of financial losses but on the other hand it was appointing top executives at fabulous salary packages. The government did not contradict the opposition claims rather showed willingness to hold a two-hour debate on the issue, although it opposed the motion on technical grounds.

Surprisingly, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Dr. Sher Afghan Khan Niazi revealed that PIA Chairman Tariq Karmani had already got three years salary in advance. He also revealed that an elevator worth Rs.2.6 million was being installed specially for the office of Chairman PIA and further that a sum of Rs.290,000 was spent on pasting of stickers at the tail of planes.

Moving the motion, opposition leader in the Senate Mian Raza Rabbani said that PIA was harassing its employees through different actions while reducing the wages of lower grade employees and enhancing their working hours. He said when the adjournment motion was submitted the total number of employees of the PIA who were going to be sacked was 150, but till date another bunch of 150 employees was also being shown the door. "PIA is being turned into Calcutta black hole for its employees," he remarked.

Giving details of the salary packages of top executives of PIA, Raza Rabbani said Aleem Khan, Chief Financial Officer, was getting Rs. 850,000 per month; Zafar Usamni, Director Commercial, Rs.575,000 per month; Uzma Bashir, General Manager Human Resource, Rs.300,000 per month; Naddem Akram. Director Information Technology, Rs. 500,000 per month; Philip Morris Flight Operation Consultant $10,000 per month; Rukhsana Asghar, Human Resource Consultant, Rs.5000 per hour; Ms Silva, Flight Consultant, Rs. 5000 per hour; Imran Maqsood, Rs. 450,000 per month; and Mr. Asim, General Manager Research drawing Rs.222,000 per month. To top it all, Chairman PIA has already received his three-year salary in advance and special elevator was being installed for his office, he added.

Even before the debate on PIA stared in the Senate, the PIA management distributed a brief on PIA affairs to the press. This brief was in fact to be presented to the media by the Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Kamil Ali Agha at the time of winding up of debate last week, however, the PIA administration took the initiative and distributed the brief beforehand. This infuriated not only the opposition but some senators from treasury benches too objected to the practice. The opposition termed this act as an effort to undermine the parliament and to overshadow the debate.

Waving the copies of the brief, opposition leader in the Senate Mian Raza Rabbani bitterly criticized PIA bureaucrats and termed this act as a "breach of privilege of the entire house" as members from both the sides of the house were to take part in the debate. "The bureaucrats want to keep the parliament under their thumb and we will never let them succeed. We cannot tolerate this insult," he declared. He called upon Deputy Chairman Jan Muhammad Jamali to pass strictures against the PIA management otherwise the opposition will bring a privilege motion. After making fiery speeches the opposition staged a walkout, leaving the government confused and on the defensive.

After the walkout Minister for Local Government Justice (Retd) Abdul Razak Thaheem expressed concern for being ignored of the briefing by the PIA. He said that being parliamentary leader of the PML (F) he felt disappointed. Similar views were expressed by woman senator from the treasury benches Pari Gul Agha. Some other voices were also raised to express displeasure over this act of the PIA management, putting the government to embarrassment and further confusing the already confused situation.

However, Minister for Law Wasi Zafar came hard on the opposition decision to walkout from the house, saying that they had made an issue of a non-issue. "It was a parliamentary practice that the government institutions used to convey their view points to the press when the debate was going on an issue and the same thing was done by the PIA," he said. Leader of the house Wasim Sajjad said that PIA did not do a wrong thing and the opposition should avoid making it an issue. "Though it was not a proper act but it could not be termed as illegal," he added.

He said that on one hand the opposition had boycotted the proceedings on the pretext of circulation of media brief but on the other hand its was holding a press conference outside the house while the debate was still taking place on the issue. He said the opposition should make a clear decision that if any matter was being discussed then its press briefing should not be issued, he added. He denied that the salary of PIA Chairman was being concealed and said that he was being paid Rs.422,140 per month plus admissible allowances. "It is also a wrong impression that the PIA Chairman has drawn three years advance salary. He along with other PIAC employees was drawing per month salary," he said, adding that the complaint about the installation of elevator was also wrong as a lift with a capacity of only 4 persons was being installed.

Earlier starting the debate, Prof. Sajid Mir from the opposition criticized the "anti-labour" policies of PIA and said that low wage employees were being shown the door while the blue eyed persons were being employed at hefty packages. Dr. Babar Awan, the second speaker from the opposition before their walkout, said that PIA was under debt burden of Rs.22 billion while its service was deteriorating. He said 135 contract employees who served the organization for 15 years were sent home without any reason. He said it was the violation of Supreme Court's verdict.

Later, opposition leader in the Senate Mian Raza Rabbani addressed a press conference with all the opposition senators in the cafeteria. He said that the combined opposition would continue boycotting the Senate session till the Deputy Chairman passed strictures against PIA management. "All 42 opposition Senate members will jointly move a privilege motion against the PIA management for undermining the parliament," he said.

Prof Khursheed Ahmed, Dr. Safdar Abbasi, Prof. Ibrahim Khan, Enver Baig, and all the opposition senators were also present during the press conference. Raza Rabbani said: "We will not compromise on the sovereignty of the parliament." He said he had prepared a 45-point charge-sheet against the PIA as the corporation has turned into dark hole of Calcutta for its employees.

He said 300 employees were sacked from the PIA on the pretext of financial crisis but senior top executives were being given hefty salary packages. Raza Rabbani denounced the "illegal and forcible removal of 1234 employees in the group 1 to 5 in October 2006, who had attained the age of 57 years, in violation of the existing retirement age of 60 years. He said the PIA is threatened with liquidation as its current liabilities exceed assets by more than Rs.20 billion and monthly losses stand at Rs. 1 billion.

The PIA management also held a press conference to explain their position. Kamran Hasan, Senior Vice President of PIA, told newsmen that the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has approached the government for seeking a Rs.18 billion package for financial restructuring to offset losses it suffered in 2005 and 2006 due to high fuel prices. He said PIA suffered loss of Rs.18 billion due to high fuel cost and it needed the government's financial support to overcome its financial woes for smooth sailing now onwards. Meanwhile, when the management was holding the press conference, PIA Chairman Tariq Kirmani was holding a meeting with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to apprise him of PI|A financial woes.

The management told the newsmen that the PIA's operating expenditures rose to Rs.9,188 million in 2006 due to increase in the international fuel prices, claiming that steep increase in fuel prices started from early 2005 and reached an unprecedented high of $ 78 per barrel in September 2006, taking PIA fuel cost from Rs.18 billion in 2004 to approximately Rs.34 billion in 2006. He said it took a number of steps to mitigate the impact of fuel cost to improve such as introducing various operational restructuring steps. He said Pakistan International Airlines would start hedging up to 20 percent of its fuel purchases from February to guard against volatile prices, a senior airline official said. "The process will start within a month." The airline has hired a consultant to help with hedging jet oil as the country lacks expertise, Mr Hassan added.