Published On | June 20, 2012


OPINION ARTICLE - As published in June 2012 edition of ITP Logistics Middle East

Undeniably, there was a time when the world needed labour unions to organise for worker's rights, but government laws across the globe have changed significantly enough – especially here in the GCC - whereby the ‘outrages’ of the past no longer exist.

However, it is the 21st century and we still have all these unions for teachers, construction workers and of course airline employees. But do they really help employees? Or do they just diminish a company’s competitiveness in an increasingly global marketplace? 
Let me make my position clear at this juncture. I do not like unions. Why do I feel this way?
It is my opinion that unions only serve to disadvantage CEOs, and clearly won’t be able to work in a productive manner. I say this because I believe most unions don’t work together with management for the good of the company and the employees but instead work against you.  
Let’s take a look at a couple of recent high profile cases where actions speak for themselves in terms of the benefit to the company – starting with Qantas.
One of the oldest airlines in the world, it has grown to become one of Australia’s most famous brands, with a great reputation. In mid-2011, Qantas and the unions went into industrial bargaining, and then downwards into industrial action, which caused disruptions and delays to Qantas' flight schedule which cost the airline A$68 million.
Up to 80,000 passengers were affected on the first day of suspension of flights alone at a cost to the airline in excess of A$20 million each day. This was expected to have disastrous long term consequences to the Australian economy.
So where was the benefit to anyone there?
The beneficiaries of the dispute were rival airlines who swiftly responded to offer stranded passengers a discount on flight fares.
There are other recent high profile cases on our doorstep, where Kuwait Airways’ effectiveness is currently being hit by strike action.
In a recent Gallup poll in the USA, 51 percent said unions mostly hurt the economy up from just 36 percent in 2006, marking the first time since the question was established in 1997 that more people said unions hurt rather than help the economy.
So is the writing on the wall for labour unions? Are they shrunken organizations that have served their purpose and should now move on? Are they just saddling companies and entire industries with debt and expenses they can't afford in an increasingly global marketplace?
Back in 2006 the UAE laid the legal foundation to set up trade unions. The aim was that trade unions would be responsible for improving the working conditions of UAE citizens and expatriates.
The moves came about as a result of two International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions, the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise; and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining. There were subsequent workshop s around the region where GCC member states examined the challenges and implications of setting up workers' unions in the Gulf.
Nothing much has progressed in the UAE since then – in large part because government laws have changed and UAE workers are now much better protected under the Ministry of Labour laws.
In Kuwait they have pushed on with their introduction and the result is that a whole new can of worms has been opened.
The country has been beset with strikes since September, when the oil sector managed to negotiate pay rises of up to 66 per cent from the state. Since then, employees of several ministries and public sector institutions have lobbied for better salaries and benefits.
Do you see a pattern here? Unions (almost) always lead to conflict. Labour rights versus labour laws, like two CEO’s constantly fighting.
It stifles economic progress, something that is very fragile at the moment without additional self-inflicted damage.
The UAE hasn’t done too badly without the introduction of unions and I don’t see it helping any time soon. The government’s willingness to listen to issues and adopt pro-active approaches to labour issues has resulted in a number of ground breaking developments in the laws that have positively impacted on the labour force.
As for the aviation sector specifically, my case for keeping unions out of the equation will be given more credence if we have a clearer collective goals. But,if we ever need a regulatory authority, the knowledge and experience within the GCAA makes them perfect to serve as a sounding board in any dispute or they can go one better by serving as a majlis al shura (consultative council).
If you have to deal with a union, you are in essence facing a constant headwind. And with the wind in the UAE’s sails when it comes to growth and development why on earth would we want that?