An indefinite strike by employees of HAL will not only undermine the Indian aerospace industry, but will also be injurious to national aspirations as well.
| By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)
Former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Training Command, IAF
From October 14, 2019, around 20,000 employees of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL ) have gone on an indefinite strike which the management describes as "Illegal".
Created on October 01, 1964, through the amalgamation of two companies i.e. Hindustan Aircraft Limited and Aeronautics India Limited, today, HAL, a Defence Public Sector Undertaking (DPSU), is one of the largest aerospace companies in Asia. It has infrastructure for manufacturing in the aerospace segment in nine locations and has three Research and Development (R&D) centres across the country. With more than 32,000 employees on its rolls at present, in the financial year 2018-19, this state-owned DPSU recorded a turnover of 19,400 crore. With its vast infrastructure, experience in manufacturing aircraft and skilled manpower, HAL undoubtedly, has the potential of being a major player in the nation's drive at indigenisation in the aerospace segment of the defence industry.
A day after the strike commenced, ironically Chief of the Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, said that the next war will be fought and won through indigenised weapons systems and equipment.
What is noteworthy is that only the regular employees are supporting the agitation by the trade unions of which the employees on contract are not a part. The root cause of the strike appears to be the failure of efforts by the trade unions and the management to resolve the deadlock over the revision of wages, despite 11 rounds of dialogue. The unions have demanded a wage revision to be on par with that given to the executives who were privileged to receive a hike of 35 percent in salary and a 110 to 140 percent enhancement in perks in the last revision. The wage revision which takes place every five years has been due for the employees since January 01, 2017, as the previous two revisions were in 2012 and 2007. In this round of wage revision, the offer by the management was pitched at a significantly lower figure that was not acceptable to the trade unions. Claims by the management that the finances of the company were not in a healthy state, were not accepted by the representatives of the trade unions engaged in the negotiations for wage revision. Their argument was based on the fact that the company was rather liberal when it came to the revision of salaries and perks of the executives of the company, but were quite prepared to compromise the interests of the employees. The company, on the other hand, found no justification and rationale in the demand of the trade unions to extend the benefits to be on par with or even higher than those sanctioned for the executives. The management claimed that the employees were offered the best package revision and termed the strike as illegal, unjustified and totally unwarranted. Even the government officials in the Department of Labour had advised the leaders of the trade unions to find an amicable solution to the dispute and not to resort to agitation in any form or go on strike. Unfortunately, this advice was ignored and the trade union leaders have displayed scant regard for national security interests as also for the reputation and well being of the organisation they serve in, especially as it has been classified as Defence Establishment under Public Utility Service.
The impact of the strike by the employees of HAL on the Indian aerospace industry will depend largely on how long the strike lasts. What is particularly disconcerting is that the strike has been classified as "indefinite" and hence one does not know or can predict as to for how long the Indian aerospace industry will be paralysed. If the strike continues for a long duration, it could have serious implications for the Indian Armed Forces that depend on the organisation for aviation hardware as well as its maintenance and the supply of spares to keep military aviation assets operational. It will also be a setback for not only the ongoing projects such as the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk I as well as the LCA Mk IA, the light combat helicopter (LCH) and the HTT 40 basic trainer aircraft; but also for new projects such as the development of the LCA Mk II, the Intermediate Jet Trainer, co-production of the Ka-226 Kamov light helicopters and development of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a fifth generation combat platform, the need for which will be critical for the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the years to come.
Quite ironically, a day after the strike commenced, Chief of the Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, while speaking at the 41st Directors Conference at Defence Research and Development Organisation, said that the organisation has made strides in ensuring that requirement of the country's defence services are met through home-grown solutions, adding that the next war will be fought and won through indigenised weapons systems and equipment. An indefinite strike by employees of HAL will therefore, not only undermine the Indian aerospace industry, but will be injurious to national aspirations as well.