Singapore Airlines and "just transition"

Submitted by AWL on 23 February, 2021 - 9:52 Author: Blake Tan
Singapore Airlines plane

In its recent Budget, the Singapore government announced plans to give $870 million to the aviation industry in an attempt to rescue it. Yet, in the third quarter of last year alone, Singapore Airlines — the national carrier — reported a net loss of $142 million. So, a whopping $870 million is not likely to go very far, especially if travel takes time to pick up after the pandemic.

Singapore Airlines laid off 4,300 workers last year while its CEO continued to draw an annual salary of around $5 million, causing outrage on social media. At the beginning of the pandemic, flight attendants had initially been deployed to public hospitals to assist nursing staff with increased patient load. Healthcare workers and junior doctors I spoke to thought that these workers were a godsend to the manpower-starved wards.

“It was like having first-class in-flight service on the wards. I would be tending to a patient after a long shift, and one of these flight attendants would swoop in with their perfect hair and make-up (looking much more put-together than I), they would prop the patient’s head up with a pillow so I could examine them better, and then offer to make me a cup of tea.” Another doctor spoke of flight attendants’ skill in feeding stroke patients, and in taking vitals.

Hospitals decided to get Singapore Airlines to conduct customer service training for healthcare workers, so that doctors, nurses and ultrasound technicians could learn to emulate the posh Singapore Airlines service. But Singapore Airlines branding was the only thing that hospital administrators took from the experience. They did not learn anything about increasing manpower on the wards, or the fact that giving healthcare workers better working conditions will almost always translate to better patient care.

If healthcare workers had had democratic control of the industry, they would’ve drawn the right conclusions from the experience and applied them. Short of that, if healthcare workers and flight attendants in Singapore had at least been organised, they could have banded together in solidarity to demand that the Singapore Airlines workers be allowed to keep their jobs in the hospitals instead of being forced to go back to the aviation industry where they would later be retrenched. It was not to be. The initiative was shortlived. The healthcare workers I spoke to were sad to see the flight attendants go after less than a year.

Redeploying cabin crew to public hospitals was a wonderful example of how a just transition away from fossil fuels is perfectly achievable. It was strong evidence of how some of the skills gained from working in pollutive sectors like aviation can easily be transferred to more sustainable sectors like public healthcare. No doubt ground staff at airports can also apply their skills to public transport. Public transport is not only more sustainable but it is also used more often by working-class people than planes (often only affordable to the rich.)

The initiative was also a good example of why climate activists don’t have to abandon workers in such industries in order to pursue environmentalist demands. It is within the bounds of reality to campaign for both workers’ rights and solutions to the climate crisis. In fact, the solution to the climate crisis can only be found in workers’ struggle, particularly in the pollutive industries.

This new Budget goes to show that the government learnt very little from what was actually a very good initiative of theirs. Instead of pumping $870 million into the aviation industry, the government should fund the redeployment of these now-unemployed aviation workers — who already have the skills — to more sustainable industries like public healthcare and public transport. Instead, they have put a heavy tax on petrol, which will not only fail to solve the climate crisis, but will also penalise food couriers and cab drivers. This is what they call “a green plan.” It spits in the face of aviation workers as well as the youth-led climate movement.

Workers and activists in Singapore must campaign for a just transition in regards to Singapore Airlines. During the pandemic, Singapore Airlines announced plans to do “flights to nowhere”, which was meaningless and pollutive.

Thanks to a mass campaign by SG Climate Rally, which sought out the voices of airline workers, Singapore Airlines made a sharp U-turn on a plan they had already announced, deciding instead to launch a new catering service and to convert their A380 planes into restaurants. It was a victory for the climate justice movement in Singapore. They pulled it off once. They can pull it off again.

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