According to newspaper reports, Singapore Airlines cabin crew members have been roped in to care for non-COVID-19 patients at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. In the time of a global pandemic where there is virtually no international travel, redeploying flight attendants to work as health ambassadors is an innovative way to ensure that flight attendants are able to remain employed while taking the pressure of medical staff who are inundated by COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic will not last forever and there will come a time when air travel will begin again. It is therefore a win-win solution for airlines not to lose their staff (who they have invested in training for) and for flight attendants who need to make a living. However, a valid question to ask is how these new health ambassadors are being remunerated.
Singapore Airlines (SIA) flight attendants are paid a very low base wage. The bulk of their salaries come from flight allowances. Now that there are no actual flights, are these health ambassadors getting enough money to pay their bills? Working hours at a hospital could be longer or as long as their flight schedules. With that in mind, if they are not being paid their flight allowances, it would not seem fair?
It is also important to note that while health ambassadors are not tending to COVID-19 patients, they are still in a hospital environment which is arguably a more high risk environment than an air craft or a desk job with the airline.
SIA’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Goh Choon Phong, has also publicly stated that he will take a 30 percent pay cut as opposed to the initial 15 after SIA secured a financial package of up to S$19 billion of funding (with the majority coming from Temasek Holdings) to help see it through the coronavirus crisis. While it is a nice gesture, I do wonder how he arrived at 15% and then 30%? For example, if someone was earning $1 million a year and spends 30% of that on yearly holidays, is this really a sacrifice given that no one is able to take holidays at this point? Compared to someone whose base salary is $1300 and has to pay for food and bills etc. out of that.
Pre the COVID-19 crisis, SIA was a very viable company by any yardstick, is there really a need to request for voluntary no pay leave? It would also be interesting to find out if it is the higher or lower earners who are taking the no pay leave. It would also be a travesty if shareholders are paid dividends at the end of the year if there are staff being requested to take no pay leave at this time.
What are other similar large airlines doing?
British Airways (BA) for instance will introduce a modified version of the British government’s job retention scheme, with workers furloughed on 80% of pay. However, unlike the government scheme, there will be no cap on earnings. BA has also confirmed that there will be no unpaid temporary layoffs or redundancies during this period. A redundancy process that had already begun before the crisis has also been halted. In other words, workers will have job security and money coming in during the corona virus crisis.
For those unaware, the British government has introduced a “furlough” scheme which basically sets out that if a company is unable to operate or they have no work for staff to do during the pandemic, workers can be put “on furlough”, which means they are kept on the payroll and not made redundant. Employers facing difficulties are able to access support through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to continue paying 80 per cent of staff wages (capped at £2,500 (S$,400) per month), to avoid redundancies and keep paying staff.
So, is SIA handling the crisis as well as it is made out in the headlines? The devil is in the detail some of which is not knowledge we possess at this point. We do however need to ask the questions. SIA represents our country in many ways and in a time of crisis, there is also something called corporate responsibility.
For the avoidance of doubt, asking questions does not make us against SIA.