The boss of India’s biggest domestic airline said he has scrapped plans to lay off 1,900 employees because their tears caused him sleepless nights.
All 800 employees at Jet Airways who had already been laid off were called back to work Friday — just 48 hours after they were told to go by the airline, citing large losses.
Jet said earlier this week it would sack 1,900 probationary employees, marking the first mass layoffs in the formerly booming Indian aviation sector.
"I could not sleep at night. I was mentally disturbed when I saw tears in their eyes. I apologise for all the agony you went through," Jet chairman Naresh Goyal told a news conference in Mumbai late Thursday.
He said he had made a "personal decision… without any external pressure."
However, on Friday Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel claimed credit for Jet’s U-turn.
Speaking in New Delhi, Patel said he had told Goyal that "in 24 hours, we must find a resolution to this problem otherwise we in the ministry would certainly not be very happy with the approach of Jet Airways."
The "hire and fire" culture of the West is deeply frowned upon in India and many Indian companies are reluctant to add new workers because of the difficulty in getting rid of them during financial downturns.
"I am happy that people have got back their jobs," said Patel who had earlier dismissed the job cuts as a matter for the airline to decide.
The layoff announcement had come days after Jet announced a tie-up with its fierce rival Kingfisher Airlines for an "operational alliance" including joint fuel management and ground handling.
India’s airline sector — a potent symbol of the country’s economic progress — is going through its "worst ever" crisis, according to Patel. Soaring global fuel prices have forced airlines to hike fares and cut routes, hitting passenger numbers.
The sector posted a combined loss of 938 million dollars in the fiscal year to March 2008 and analysts expect a two-billion dollar loss this year.
Many of those initially laid off were flight attendants and ground crew in their early 20s. Some expressed worry about repaying bank loans they had taken to pay flight-training and cabin crew school fees.
One man, Jet purser Salim Suleiman, was on leave and heard he was to lose his job on his wedding day. He had to return after the ceremony to hand in his uniform, badge and security pass.
Those earlier dismissed took to the streets this week, many weeping at the unexpected sackings two weeks ahead of the major Hindu festival Diwali — a time when many in India spend heavily on gifts.
Firebrand Hindu nationalist politician Raj Thackeray, a potent force in Mumbai, where Jet is headquartered, had warned of repercussions if the airline did not reinstate the employees.
After Goyal’s about-turn, employees cheered and distributed sweets outside Jet’s Mumbai head office.
The company however said it still needed to cut costs in coming months as the industry seeks to fly through stormy weather.
State-run carrier Air India is considering allowing 15,000 workers to take up to five years’ unpaid leave as it battles the downturn.
"We will need to take some tough financial decisions," Goyal said, without elaborating.
Jet posted a full-year loss to March of 2.53 billion rupees (52 million dollars) and has defaulted on payment of fuel bills worth 2.59 billion rupees to the state-run Indian Oil Corp.
The government has rejected industry appeals for a bailout but has said it will look at cutting taxes on jet fuel and reducing airport landing and parking fees to ease the sector’s woes.