“We have dependents to feed, please don’t let our 9W bleed” — the poster Rakesh Kumar Kohli held at Jantar Mantar Thursday told only half the story. One of Kohli’s dependents includes his 16-year-old daughter, who is differently abled since birth.
The poster in Sangeeta Mukherjee’s hand bore the message “Hear Our Cry, Let 9W Fly”. It didn’t tell her complete story either. Her mother, a cancer patient, is battling for life at AIIMS.
In the hierarchy of Jet Airways, the gap between Mukherjee’s husband Aishiq, a senior executive engineer with the airlines, and Kohli (50), a mechanic, is huge. But on Friday, their designations were reduced to a footnote as hundreds of staffers gathered at Jantar Mantar, a day after crippling financial crisis grounded the company. Between 2 pm and 4 pm, the iconic protest square was a witness to fear, anguish, anger, tears and the many versions of the “truth” behind the crisis.
Not as eloquent as the young executives and pilots, Kohli, whose work involves changing tyres of transport trolleys and welding, stood silently in a corner. “Chal jaye toh bohut achhi baat hai (it will be very good if the company is up and running again),” he said.
There is a good reason for him to wish so. “I have been with the company since it had three planes. Back then, I used to earn Rs 4,400 and my last salary was around Rs 36,000. I have one son and two daughters, one of whom is differently abled. I also need to pay back a loan of Rs 4.30 lakh that I had taken for my daughter’s spine surgery.”
Most of the employees pointed out how the crisis has left them in the lurch.
“I am the sole earning member of the family. Since January, I have not received my salary. I have two children, who have just been promoted to ninth standard. Then they talk about Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao,” said John (59), who has been employed as an aircraft maintenance engineer (AME) with Jet for 23 years.
Sangeeta said she has not even been able to pay the school fee of her son, who studies in Class X. “Before joining my husband at the protest, I was at AIIMS where my mother is battling cancer. The government will keep our hope alive till polls and then the company will shut. Whatever is being said is an eyewash,” she said.
Anurag Sharma (45), who also worked as an AME, said the situation is precarious since they cannot apply in airlines other than SpiceJet and Air India Express.
“We are all licensed to look after Boeing aircraft. We need to be trained for months to become eligible for companies like Indigo. And most of us are middle-aged people. Who will offer me a job at this level?” said Sharma, who has been working with Jet since 1999.
While AMEs underlined the licensing aspect, a large number of cabin crew pointed out how most of them have crossed the upper age limit, which will pose a problem when they apply at other companies. “Even Air India, where cabin crew retire at 60, is not taking people who have crossed their 30s,” Ambika (37), employed with Jet for over 13 years, said.
“And even if we get jobs, we will have to suffer massive pay cuts and will have have to relocate. They all know Jet crew are among the best trained. So it is nothing short of exploitation,” said Dagang (37).
Pankaj (37), a cabin supervisor, questioned why the consortium of lenders made Jet founder Naresh Goyal step down as a pre-requisite for pumping in emergency funds.
“Now they have gone back on their word. Where do we go? We cannot even blame anyone it seems. Do we enroll ourselves at the employment exchange after all these years?” he said.
For most of the lower-level staff, the situation came as a bolt from the blue as many of them were unaware of the looming crisis.
“The company didn’t communicate anything with us. I have six members in my family. Kaun rakhega hume? My landlord is putting pressure to pay rent. My mother is 93,” said Vijay Mann (53), an employee with the company’s traffic department.
Many employees broke down while sharing their plight, with some pointing out the “differential treatment” meted out to the state-run Air India as compared to Jet Airways.“Did we commit a crime by taking up a private sector job? How come they keep pumping money into Air India and cannot even share the bare minimum to keep Jet afloat? Do we not pay taxes? This is unacceptable,” said an employee, requesting anonymity.