News / Asia

After Disasters, Stricken Malaysia Airlines Staff Brace for Job Cuts

Ground crew work among Malaysia Airlines planes on the runway at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, July 25, 2014.
Ground crew work among Malaysia Airlines planes on the runway at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, July 25, 2014.
Reuters

As bodies from downed Flight MH17 were brought home last week, a group of Malaysia Airlines flight attendants, in black mourning headscarves contrasting with their pink and turquoise uniforms, sobbed and clung to each other in grief.

The 19,500 staff of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) now face a new ordeal - a quarter of them may lose their jobs at the unprofitable airline, hit by two jet disasters this year. Flight MH370 remains untraced since its disappearance en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March.

Deep job losses, route cuts and a change of leadership are expected to feature in a restructuring plan being prepared by Malaysia's government for announcement as early as Thursday, when MAS also reports second-quarter results. Likely the last before being de-listed, the numbers are expected to show plunging ticket sales and heavy losses even before July's shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine.

As state fund Khazanah Nasional, the majority owner, prepares to take the company private and inject efficiency into the airline, it must tackle crumbling staff morale and win over the powerful main labor union if turnaround efforts are to succeed.

“MAS is suffering from an image problem and a problem with the staff,” said Nik Huslan, former chief pilot at MAS. “They have to find someone the staff can respect and rally behind.”

Even before the lost aircraft tragedies, airline insiders said staff discontent had been growing for years due to strategy U-turns, leadership changes and poor career prospects.

One of the region's most prestigious and fastest-growing airlines in the 1990s, MAS has steadily fallen behind high-end rivals such as Singapore Airlines and been battered by the rise of Asia's budget carriers like AirAsia. The company hasn't made an annual profit since 2010.

This year's twin disasters have caused new stresses. A total of 186 MAS flight crew quit between January and July, many of them due to family pressure not to fly after the crashes, MAS says. Over 5,000 MAS staff work as cabin crew or pilots and the airline says the resignation rate has now returned to normal.

About a quarter of MAS staff are likely to lose their jobs under Khazanah's plan, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters. The pill is likely to be sweetened with costly redundancy packages and offers of jobs at other state enterprises.

Union Muscle

Malaysia Airlines executives told Reuters that the tragedies had served as a wake-up call to staff, and even to recalcitrant union bosses, that drastic change could no longer be avoided if the 42-year-old company is to survive.

“There needs to be a change in the mindset, and people are coming around to that,” said one senior executive. “People must realize that they may need to work differently - the crew may have to work longer shifts or they may have shorter layovers. The engineers may have to work a bit longer or clear aircraft faster.”

But such demands would also have to be leavened with incentives to encourage staff, or at least a convincing message that they will eventually see benefits, the main union has warned.

“We want to see things in total, and what the long-term plan is,” said Mohd Jabarullah Abdul Kadir, executive secretary of the Malaysia Airlines Employees Union (MASEU), which represents 13,000 of the carrier's staff. “If there are retrenchments, they cannot cut staff numbers without basis.”

For Prime Minister Najib Razak, who chairs Khazanah, the plan will be seen as the latest gauge of his credentials as a reformer in Southeast Asia's third-largest economy.

State firms are used as one tool to reinforce affirmative action policies favoring majority ethnic Malays over other races and are heavily intertwined with Najib's long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The main union at MAS has close ties to UMNO - and has successfully resisted previous restructuring attempts.

'Same Circus, Different Clowns'

Crew who have worked at the airline recently complained about a lack of opportunities to progress in their careers. Cabin crew are typically offered five-year contracts, they said, after which they start from scratch with a new five-year deal.

“There's always uncertainty for your career because of this arrangement,” said one former crew member, who was with the airline for nearly three decades from the mid-1980s and recalls the “exciting” early days of the airline's rapid expansion.

Huslan, the former chief pilot, blamed “poor talent management” for high attrition rates among pilots and engineers. “They leave for better prospects because they don't see it in MAS. This has been on the rise,” he said.

To reverse that, the most vital ingredient of the turnaround plan may be a new chief executive who can effectively communicate the new strategy, execute the plan, and win over doubters.

The sober demeanor of current chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, who relaxes by competing in triathlons, is a stark contrast to the brash showmanship of Malaysia's most famous airline boss, Tony Fernandes of budget carrier AirAsia.

“Airlines are about image,” said Huslan. “If you cannot carry an image, well that's the end of the story for you. You cannot have a humble and shy CEO.”

Others say previous changes in the carrier's management have failed to wipe out inefficiencies, while breeding skepticism among staff that new leadership can bring lasting improvements.

“Every time somebody new steps in there's a pretense of change,” said the former MAS cabin crew member. “We have a famous saying among the staff: 'It's the same circus, with different clowns'.”  

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs