Ryanair turbulence lands in Parliament

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Ireland’s low-fare airline Ryanair faces more legal challenges in Norway, after two flight attendants announced they’re filing lawsuits over their working conditions and abrupt dismissals. Backed by Norwegian labour organization Parat, their complaints offer insight into how the airline treats those working for it and Parat firmly believes Ryanair has violated Norwegian law.

Ryanair continues to generate turbulence in the Norwegian market where it's been trying to expand. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

Ryanair continues to generate turbulence in the Norwegian market where it’s been trying to expand. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

Rival airline SAS added to the latest complaints against Ryanair by charging on Wednesday that Norwegian authorities have been far too lenient in monitoring Ryanair’s operations in Norway. Questions are also flying over whether Ryanair has violated Norwegian tax law, and government officials are promising a probe.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, confronted with the turbulence around Ryanair on the floor of Parliament (Stortinget) Wednesday, denied his Labour government has been too passive and said he takes the complaints around Ryanair seriously. “This government fight social dumping, but within the airline industry, it’s extra complicated when it comes to countries and rules and free movement of labour,” Stoltenberg said. He said his government is thus in the process of clarifying laws and regulations tied to airline labour, after opposition politicians from the Conservative, Progress and Christian Democrats’ parties criticized the state’s failure to follow up on complaints around Ryanair.

‘Slave contracts’
Norway’s leading business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) carried the flight attendants’ complaints on its front page Wednesday, with other Norwegian media outlets reporting on Parat’s pending legal action as well. The flight attendants described what they called “a culture of fear” at Ryanair and shared their work contracts that one Parat official described as “slave contracts.”

The contracts document how the flight attendants had to pay for their own training, with the costs of it deducted from the first six months of their paychecks. They also document how they can be fired with no or little notice, how they never receive sick pay and how they receive no pay when they must be on standby at home.

The contracts in DN’s possession also show how no time away from work is paid during the first year of employment and, perhaps most importantly, how they’re employed and paid not directly by Ryanair but by various crewing agencies in Ireland including Crewlink Ltd and WorkForce International. They thus paid tax to Ireland and nothing to Norway, even though they were based at the Rygge airport outside Moss and thus lived in Norway. When plaintiff Alessandra Cocca was fired just before her 12-month trial period was due to end (allegedly for failing to use the aircraft public address system correctly and, on one occasion, allowing passengers on board too early) she wasn’t even offered a ticket to her original home in Italy.

‘No protection’
“Cabin crews have no protection, so folks are afraid they’ll lose their jobs on the spot,” Cocca told DN. Her contract, which she claims she didn’t receive until after she’d completed Ryanair’s training program, revealed that she was subject to immediate dismissal during her first three months on the job, with one week’s notice after that and with two weeks’ notice after two years on the job. She said she thought the wages she’d been told she’d get (around EUR 1,400, or NOK 10,400, a month) were acceptable. “That would have been fantastic at home,” Cocca said, only to find that more than half of it went towards paying for housing alone in Norway. “We knew the cost of living was higher here, but we thought we’d be okay.” Instead, she and her colleagues often had little money for food.

“Illness is often used as a reason to get rid of employees,” Cocca, age 35, told DN. “And Ryanair doesn’t pay sick leave. If you’re not feeling well, you probably go to work anyway, even though you can infect other passengers. That happens all the time.”

Cocca and another dismissed flight attendant, who only wanted to be identified as Zuzana for fear of reprisal, said they’re breaking the confidentiality around their work contracts not just because they feel they’ve been poorly treated but because they want to help other colleagues and force Ryanair to change their practices. “Ryanair exploits folks who need jobs, and does whatever it wants,” Zuzana told DN.

‘Norwegian law must apply’
Labour officials at Parat claim it’s important for them to establish that Norwegian law must apply for all workers in Norway, also foreign workers based in Norway. “It’s important that all airlines with a base in Norway have the same rules,” Vegard Einan of Parat, which has been resisting Ryanair’s expansion in Norway, told DN. “If Ryanair’s model stands, it will undermine national rules and make it profitable to break them.”

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has been complaining about the tax issues swirling around Ryanair for months and finally seems to be getting some response from state authorities. Ryanair has claimed that since its workers are legally employed by Irish crewing agencies and their aircraft registered in Ireland, they’re immune from Norway law and taxes. Both the Norwegian tax authority Skattedirektoratet and the labour ministry now contest that. NRK reported this week that both believe Ryanair’s crews based in Norway should pay tax to Norway, be members of the social welfare and health systems and be entitled to all other rights of employees regarding pensions, sick leave and welfare programs.

A Ryanair official told DN that the airline will fight off any such legal claims, either from the unions, their employees or state officials. The spokesman claimed that cabin crews working for Ryanair in Norway work on Irish contracts and on Irish-registered aircraft that are legally defined as Irish territory: “Therefore they’re paid in Ireland and Irish law demands they pay Irish taxes and social costs in Ireland.”

Ryanair nonetheless faces challenges from the state as well: “We want clarification of operations in an industry that’s steadily more international,” Geir Pollestad, a state secretary in the transportation ministry, told NRK. “It’s good that other industry players come forward and take up these issues. It’s important to secure terms of competition.” SAS, still partially owned by Scandinavian governments, hasn’t been directly threatened by Ryanair because Ryanair doesn’t appeal to the business travelers who still form SAS’ most important customer base. SAS nonetheless worries the state has been too slow to challenge the “creativity” linked to “bases of convenience,” a practice that Norwegian Air has been introducing as well in an effort to compete against other low-fare carriers.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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