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Philippine Airlines flies again after outsourced workers replace strikers

MANILA--Philippine Airlines took to the air again on Wednesday a day after being paralyzed by a wildcat strike, but thousands of passengers remained stranded amid a skeleton flight schedule, the carrier said.

Asia's oldest airline, known as PAL, said it would need several days to get back to normal as outsourced workers replaced the strikers who staged a protest on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to keep their jobs.

“We're only operating at 35-40 percent of capacity,” PAL spokeswoman Cielo Villaluna told AFP.

PAL said another 102 flights had been cancelled on Wednesday, affecting 14,000 passengers.

They include 17 regional flights to such areas as Bangkok, Beijing, and Singapore, as well as Guam, another PAL spokesperson, Jonathan Gesmundo, told AFP.

“We're giving priority to trans-continental flights so these would not be affected,” he said, referring to daily flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Tuesday's strike was the culmination of a tortuous program by loss-making PAL to outsource 2,600 in-flight catering, airport services and call centre reservation jobs on October 1.

The affected workers staged a sit-in at Manila's airport, but PAL responded by bringing forward its outsourcing plan by a few days and immediately replaced the strikers with the cheaper labor.

After calling in the police, who carried many of the striking workers from the check-in counters, the sit-in ended and the airline finally dispatched seven flights late on Tuesday night.

PAL sent termination notices to its ground staff last month, saying it needed to trim its workforce to 5,000 and save up to US$15 million in annual operating costs.

The airline, which incurred losses of US$312 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, said local rivals already outsourced their ground services.

Villaluna accused the protesters of disabling vehicles such as push-back trucks used to bring aircraft from the passenger tubes to the runway, and deck loaders used for loading cargo onto the plane, as well as computer servers.

She said they would not be allowed back onto their work premises.

“The strikers cannot return to work. They will be paid up to Sept. 30. They are considered on holiday leave with pay,” she said.

The strikers also face disciplinary action for abandoning their posts without a formal strike notice, which may affect their separation pay, Villaluna warned.

Ground crew union president Gerry Rivera rejected the allegations of sabotage, and accused the airline of illegally locking out its own employees.

“They (protesters) just stood there, they did not touch the equipment. If the replacement personnel now say they cannot operate them, that only means they are not trained,” Rivera told AFP.

He said the union would picket the airline operations center on Wednesday while its lawyers studied legal options over the company's refusal to give the protesters back to their old jobs.

They were holding out hope that the Court of Appeals would declare the outsourcing plan illegal, even though it had not given any indication it would deliver its verdict before their contracts were officially terminated.

The union said just seven percent of the ground crew staff had applied for work with the service providers, since they were being offered salaries that less than half their current pay with PAL in some circumstances.

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