|Top) Gate Gourmet employees protest at Heathrow terminal 4. (Above) A protester demonstrates in support of the sacked workers. (AFP)
London, Aug. 12: A Sikh woman who works for the catering company, Gate Gourmet, explained to The Telegraph today of the underlying causes which have grounded all British Airways flights in and out of Heathrow and cause worldwide disruption.
She said that Gate Gourmet, an American-owned company which does the on-board catering for BA, had told its staff, who are mainly Punjabi: “We are not
making a profit. You will have to do more work for less money.”
Since the dispute suddenly flared yesterday, TV has been showing footage of the strikers - rows of Punjabi women in salwaar kameez and some turbaned Sikhs holding placards.
Commenting on the dispute, which has caused the cancellation of more than 100 BA flights and disrupted the travel plans of at least 17,000 of the airline’s passengers ' little improvement is expected over the weekend - a source at Air India remarked: “It looked as though this was happening at Delhi or Amritsar, not Heathrow.”
What has baffled many observers is how a dispute over pay and working conditions at Gate Gourmet, has escalated to the point where Heathrow has now started resembling a “refugee centre” crammed with thousands of bleary-eyed passengers.
The trouble began after Gate Gourmet sacked 800 of its staff yesterday after they refused to return to work. Shortly afterwards, 1000 BA baggage and other staff, also mostly Indian, also began a “sympathy strike”.
Other than that both groups of workers belong to the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), there is no obvious link between the two disputes.
However, The Telegraph has established that Gate Gourmet catering staff and the BA baggage handlers are recruited from the same area, namely Hounslow and Southall, in west London. At the very least, the two sets of workers know each other.
“They are related or friends,” said the Sikh woman. “The women could be someone’s daughter or wife.”
She added it was the job of the women employed in catering to pack the food, for which they took home Pound800 a month after tax ' a poor wage for Britain.
“We have been told our bonuses and other extras will be stopped.”
It inflamed matters that the sacking was done yesterday in a high-handed manner, with megaphones used in some instances to warn workers that those who did not return immediately from their meetings could consider themselves dismissed.
“The dismissal letters have been sent in Hindi and Punjabi,” said the woman.
The source at Air India said he hoped the managements of British Airways and Gate Gourmet would stand firm. He said he was angered to hear some of the strikers say “Jai Hind”.
“I am going to ring the Indian High Commission,” he said. “Why say, ‘Jai Hind!’ This has nothing to do with India. These people should be grateful to have jobs.
They are holding British Airways to ransom. Also, the management of Gate Gourmet is trying to restructure the company but these workers want to stick to working practices from 20 years ago.”
Not surprisingly, this is also the view of Gate Gourmet, whose UK operation lost Pound22 million in 2004. It says it could lose Pound25 million this year without changes to working practices.
Gate Gourmet UK’s managing director Eric Born said: "If we don't change, the company will not survive and there will be no future - we now have to take control of this situation swiftly which may lead to restructuring to avoid the total collapse of the company."
British Airways has accused Gate Gourmet of mishandling the dispute and “raising the temperature”. In return, Gate Gourmet has urged BA, which has suffered three damaging disputes in three years, to examine its own working practices.
At a time of rising oil prices, this dispute could cost BA losses of Pound40million and inflict long term damage to its reputation.
Sir Rod Eddington, BA’s chief executive, said: “Yet again I urge the management of Gate Gourmet and senior TGWU officials to find a speedy resolution to this crisis and end the misery they are heaping on our customers.”
He added: “Equally, those members of the TGWU employed by British Airways must end their crippling unofficial action in support of the Gate Gourmet dispute. This is not our dispute.”