Ryanair’s employment practices, especially for pilots, creates safety risks and puts a major question mark over who would be responsible for compensation in the event of an accident, the European Parliament was told.
Irish labour law facilitates what were described as bogus contracts and was allowing what MEPs called “scandalous practices”, according to a report carried out by Ghent University.
Ryanair denied the accusations, describing the report commissioned by the pilots body, the European Cockpit Association (ECA) and funded by the European Commission, as “total rubbish” and “false claims” with “no basis in fact or evidence” and based on an anonymous internet survey.
Following the Germanwings crash in March, the spotlight is on pilot safety and the EU is reviewing its aviation safety rules, including pilot checks.
The ECA blames what it calls atypical contracts for pilots taking risks and flying when they are ill, failing to report safety issues, not having enough time for pre-flight checks, and being unable to exercise judgement when faced with questionable flying conditions.
Ryanair tend not to employ their pilots directly, but have them create companies that contract their services to an agency and the airline deals with the agency, while 70% of Ryanair pilots are on zero-hour contacts, paid only for the time they are flying.
But, according to Professor Peter Turnbull of Cardiff University who carried out a specific study into the Irish and British situation, these contracts are bogus.
Some of the 6,600 pilots who answered a detailed questioner for the Ghent study described having to pay employer and employee social welfare contributions, while others were in severe difficulties over their tax.
All of this puts them under financial strain as most have flying school debts of €100,000, and amassed further debts qualifying to fly the particular planes used by Ryanair.
The “home base” concept used by Ryanair means that 90% of pilots and cabin crew are based outside their home country and can be moved by the company at short notice.
Jon Horne, a pilot and vice president of the ECA, told the parliament’s employment and social affairs committee that bogus and zero-hour contracts must be banned. “It is absolute lunacy in aviation. The fact that it can go on is absurd. Would you be satisfied if a surgeon was only paid when he operates, regardless of whether it is safe to do so or not?” he said.
These employment practices also made it more difficult for pilots to make safety reports, with 40% of those taking the questionnaire saying the employment status of their colleagues affected their safety decisions.
Prof Turnbull said the bogus contracts were facilitated by the fact Ireland has no legal definition of a self-employed person, other than a code of practice. “Only the uniform and ID card is provided by the person and Ryanair decides when and where the pilot will work, so this is clearly a bogus employment contract.”
Emmanuel Jahan, of the Association of European Airlines, said these contracts meant that the airline could claim they were not responsible in the event of an accident implicating the pilot, whereas the pilot’s insurer would claim he was not really self-employed and would refuse to pay out.
But he said flying is still a safe way of travel. “There may be some abuses but the vast majority of low cost airlines do follow safety rules.”
Committee member, Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune, said it was important to state that Ryanair has a comprehensive and documented safety record while low-cost carriers were good for consumers. “That said, we must ensure that employment standards for pilots are not diluted. We must also ensure that employment conditions for pilots do not impact on safety. If employment contracts in the aviation sector are impacting safety then the commission needs to take immediate action.”
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