“They aim to divide workers” – Trade unionists in Spain expose Ryanair’s tactics

30 Apr 2021

ETF affiliates Sitcpla and USO have been fighting Ryanair in courts for years, and they’ve won many significant battles. We spoke to them about their union strategy, the reasons behind it, and how they’ve used it to help their members.

At the end of March, ETF affiliates USO and Sitcpla received good news – they’ve won a legal case against Ryanair.

More specifically, Spanish National Court has ruled that employing cabin crew on contracts with employment agencies Crewlink and Workforce to work on Ryanair flights is considered an illegal transfer of workers.

The real employer, the court said, is Ryanair.

This decision echoes what unions have been saying for years. Ryanair is using agencies to distance themselves from responsibilities it has as an employer and to complicate organising and negotiating. In reality, though, the company defines every aspect of the cabin crew’s working lives.

Who makes decisions on annual leave? Ryanair.

Who provides debriefings to workers? Ryanair.

Who determines working methods? Ryanair.

Having workers employed by different entities and on different contracts is an established Ryanair practice that affects all union work. In one example, unions describe negotiations on wage cuts held during the COVID-19 crisis, where after reaching an agreement with one agency, they had to move forward and repeat the process with the other.

USO and Sitcpla refuse to let this stop them, though. For several years now, they’ve been consistently challenging Ryanair’s anti-worker practices in court and proving that the company intentionally and persistently violates national law.

While tiring, these legal fights have been vital in ensuring aviation workers’ rights in Spain. This latest ruling on agency work significantly changes the lives of more than 400 cabin crew members who can now claim their right to be recognised as Ryanair workers and equivalent rights to the directly employed.

According to USO and Sitcpla, the company’s primary aim when using agencies is to create divisions between workers. Using different employers, contracts, and salaries, Ryanair hopes that workers won’t realise that their interests are the same and can only protect them by working together. Ryanair has also been using frequent base transfers and shorter contracts for new employees to prevent them from organising.

Ten or fifteen years ago, you’d start with a three-year contract, and now, explain unions, they are between 6 and 9 months. Consequently, workers are less likely to join a union. They are in a much more precarious situation and risk not having their contract renewed if they do anything that the company might perceive as causing trouble.

Reflecting on why they’ve used legal action against Ryanair so often, the unions say that they’re left with no other choice. They always try to approach the company in other ways first, but Ryanair often refuses to make changes.

At least until a court ruling makes them.

Almost at the same time as the decision on the use of agencies, the National High Court ruled that during the 2019 Ryanair strike, the company took several unlawful actions. They tried to coerce workers not to take part, ignored the strike committee’s rights, and refused to comply with the decree on minimum services.

At the time, Ryanair refused to follow state orders on limiting their flights during the collective action. Instead, 100% of flights took off, with workers brought in from other bases. This action was not only illegal but had a huge demoralising effect on striking cabin crew.  It took almost two years to prove that Ryanair’s actions were illegal, but now it has finally been confirmed, recognising the commitment and courage of everyone who took part in the strike.

When asked about fears surrounding suing a company like Ryanair, the unions say that that’s something they face daily. Going against Ryanair is seen as very risky, and many workers are concerned that they will be fired. This fear is not unfounded, as Ryanair has retaliated against union activists before. Trade union representatives we spoke to are very aware that they might never be promoted in the company because of their activities.

Despite all this, they persist.

To everyone unsure about whether to take action against a company like Ryanair, they say:

Join a union, be informed about your rights, have no fear. It’s worth it.”