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On the last day of October, the ETUI held a lunch debate on recent developments at Ryanair. The Irish low-cost airline is infamous for its poor working conditions and dire employment relations, despite net revenues of 1,45 billion € per year. It is also notoriously anti-union, which has hindered pursuit of industrial action in the past. The ETUI audience heard how this is changing, with steadily worsening conditions leading to a succession of strikes across different European countries over recent months.

Jean Vandewattyne, lecturer at Mons University and the Free University of Brussels (ULB) who has followed developments at Ryanair since its 2001 establishment in Charleroi – the first continental base of the airline - explained the evolution of industrial conflict between Ryanair and its pilots and cabin crew in Belgium.

The present conflict dates back to 2003, he explained, and initially took the form of legal action supported by the National Employees' Centre (CNE) of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC). The aim of the action was to apply Belgian law in the case of three flight attendants laid-off after a one-year trial period who received a compensation equivalent to just seven days' remuneration. In 2005, the Charleroi labour court ruled in favour of the former hostesses, but subsequently Ryanair won an appeal against this at the Mons labour court. Later, a second legal battle was fought between an ex-hostess, supported by the CNE, and Ryanair. While this case is still awaiting a judgment on appeal, social conflict entered another phase from the end of 2017 when the overall employment market for pilots became more beneficial. Cabin crew and pilots organised strikes in July, August and September 2018, structured around the demand to recognise social rights linked to the base of assignment. The conflict revealed some of the preposterous work conditions at Ryanair – training and uniform paid by the employees, recruitment via interim-agencies, Irish labour contracts, and a rigid anti-trade union policy by Ryanair management.

François Ballestero from the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF) presented to the ETUI’s audience the campaigns that the ETF and the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) have waged since 2005, and the current campaign in particular. The ETF has been working to give Ryanair employees a collective voice for 15 years, putting forward proposals based on ILO conventions and the fundamental rights of EU workers. In the words of Mr. Ballestero, working at Ryanair is a ‘modern form of slavery’. As an ‘authoritarian leader of a sect’ the CEO Michael O’Leary performs horrible demonstrations in public and has a bad attitude not only with regard to its personnel but also to passengers.

Ryanair preferred to close its bases in France in 2012 rather than to apply French labour law, and it also left Denmark because a Danish court ruled in favour of the trade unions in 2015. In 2017 the ETF started a joint campaign with the ITF called Cabin Crew United. The continuous pressure on Ryanair management led finally to the recognition of trade unions at the company in December 2017 which is a ‘historic date for the trade union movement’, Francois Ballestero said. He pointed out five strategic axes of the ETF/ITF campaign: assistance in organizing, negotiating, proceding in court, application of social security laws applicable in the country of assignment, and the reinforcement of the Fair Transport campaign.

A milestone of the protests at Ryaniar was set with the strikes of the summer of 2018, when Ryanair employees began to dare to show their faces during industrial action, which was previously unthinkable. In July 2018 the “Ryanair Crew Charter”, which emerged from a meeting of Cabin Crew United, representing Ryanair staff across Europe and North Africa, in Dublin, put forward 34 demands from staff including fair pay, predictable working hours, the application of the law of the country of assignment, and the end of work under pressure.

The debate ended on an optimistic note, hearing from speakers that, even if the Ryanair CEO, Michael O’Leary, was still pretending to be unimpressed by this remarkable joint campaign, some of the stakeholders in the Board of the company now realised that the company needs to be humanised.

The event has been livestreamed via the ETUI Facebook page and you can watch it here