Africa’s biggest airline, Ethiopian Airlines, has started to furlough workers, including crew members in response to the devastating impact of the coronavirus crisis on the global travel industry.
The union, which represents most of the airline’s 8,000 workers, criticized the decision to lay off thousands of employees with no pay for three months and possibly longer in the midst of a pandemic.
The decision to furlough workers comes as the airline is under pressure to cancel flights to nations that have substantial virus spreads, including flights to China, despite other similar international airlines do so. It had promised to offset losses caused by COVID-19 with an increase in cargo flights and aircraft maintenance. This led to presumption employees were not at risk of being laid off at such a large scale, the union claimed.
“Most of us are being forced to agree to a three-month leave without any payment with little option,” says a full-time hostess who spoke to Quartz Africa on condition of anonymity. “If we don’t agree, we have been warned that would be considered as if we have abandoned our jobs at our own will and there will be no employment guarantee once the crisis is over.”
A letter forwarded to employees—seen by Quartz Africa—says due to reasons beyond the company’s control, staff is no longer required to report for duty until the resumption of normal operations.
“The company does not opt for the termination of your employment contract by now and rather we found it plausible to grant you annual leave and leave without pay for a specified duration,” the letter reads.
“Hence, as per our discussion and consensus reached thereof you are hereby granted 90 consecutive days of leave without pay which will be in effect from April 03, 2020, to July 2nd, 2020 after you exhaust all accrued and prorated vacation days”, the letter continues.
Ethiopian Airlines, in a response to Quartz Africa, says it has laid off only contract employees under an agreement made with their recruitment agencies. All the local flight crew members are hired by the airline directly while custodians and support staff are recruited from agencies as per need requests and did not address the issues with flight attendants.
“As our flights to over 87 destinations suspended and over 80 of our fleets are grounded, we have instructed some of our workers to take a paid leave,” said the airline’s statement.
Over the last decade, Ethiopian Airlines has built itself into Africa’s primary airline and made Addis Ababa the key hub for the entire continent, overtaking Dubai in the process. Though all airlines face a tough time ahead, those with a large share international routes face additional challenges as most countries have locked down international travel for the foreseeable future.
Ethiopian’s particular worry might be it could become a victim of its own success as it has invested and expanded rapidly in recent years with airplane leases from Boeing and Airbus, new flight routes and terminal expansion at home. This downturn also comes a year after its worst tragedy, when a Boeing 737 Max flight to Nairobi malfunctioned and crashed leading to 157 passengers and crew losing their lives.
“Although Ethiopian Airlines have been quite resilient in managing these complex changes (rolling restrictions), they have recently reduced operations to 30 countries and about 80 destinations,” says Ogaga Udjo, African Aviation Analyst.
“The cargo-side of aviation, however, has been slightly buffered from COVID-19, due to limited human interaction and this is where, once again, Ethiopian Airlines is showcasing their leadership by freighting much-needed goods around Africa and the rest of the world,” he adds.