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June 17, 2021

British Airways wants its staff to work for free, but would you?

By Jason Buckland, Sympatico / MSN Finance

The white flag has officially been raised.

In a move that essentially shouts, “Hey, we’re sorry, we’ve tried everything else!” British Airways has done the unexpected and asked its 40,000 staff to honour their loyalty to the company and work for free as the airline struggles to make it through the recession.

Reeling from a near $750-million loss in 2008, BA’s chief exec Willie Walsh said he will work without pay next month and hopes the airline’s employees might follow suit and volunteer for up to four weeks of unpaid shifts in July.

On its surface, of course, this is ridiculous. Walsh, who makes an unknown yet God-knows-how-many-pounds salary, can afford to take the hit and could probably use a bit of good press as BA’s board of directors decides the fate of a man who – bad economy and all – led the company into a record deficit.

Obviously the rest of BA’s staff, while earning a respectable average salary of about $55,000, cannot.

Yet the proposition, no matter how arrogant, does raise an interesting hypothetical. If you knew your company was struggling, would you be willing to sacrifice a few weeks pay if it meant a better shot of holding onto your job down the road?

I think a good number of us, after the initial recoil, would swallow hard and volunteer our time. See, that’s the thing about people; for the most part, we’re genuinely loyal to those who treat us right and – if it’s the difference between a shot at maintaining a well-paying job or not – many of us would probably make the sacrifice with a smile.

But here’s where BA’s idea fails. While Walsh is smart (he realizes no one can do with income stopping cold for a month and has offered to deduct the salary over a period of half a year), his hands might be tied with the whole loyalty thing.

The airline is thought to be seeking as many as 4,000 upcoming job cuts, so you’d think it’d be a fair compromise to allow staff to work for free in order to better position themselves in the company come lay-off time. That seems like the logical play, right?

Well, BA has vehemently denied this is the case, refusing to give preference to those who volunteer their services for the good of the company should the airline be forced to cut back staff.

So if I’m a young BA worker, then, what exactly is my motivation to bust my ass without pay to help secure the future of the company if it’s likely seniority will rule when staff is ultimately trimmed?

I know there are union factors at play and I don’t mean to turn this into a union vs. non-union debate, but this sure seems like an area where it would be in BA’s best interests to intervene and reward those willing to show their outright loyalty to the company.

And I suppose it’s under that premise that the BA request to its staff might not be all that ludicrous, after all. You’re telling me that, if their prospects of survival weren’t terminated from the beginning, thousands of auto workers or newspaper staff wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to take a cut in pay last year if they thought it might leave their company better suited to keep them employed in the future?

Is it that absurd to suggest, in the right setting, this strategy might have been able to save a few jobs somewhere along the line?



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Gordon PowersGordon Powers

A long-time fund company executive, Gordon Powers now heads up the Affinity Group, a financial services consulting firm. Gordon was a personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail for many years, has taught retirement planning...

Jason BucklandJason Buckland

The modern-day MC Hammer of money, Jason can often be seen spending cash that isn’t his with the efficiency of a Wilt Chamberlain first date. After cutting his teeth as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, he joined the MSN Money team with...