'The contract ends, that's it': Remaining SIA cabin crew who fear being let go

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Matthias Ang | October 02, 2020, 11:56 AM

PERSPECTIVE: Singapore Airlines has recently cut 2,400 jobs, including pilots, ground staff and cabin crew alike. SIA staff have also experienced pay cuts of varying degrees.

What is it like for the remaining SIA cabin crew?

Speaking to Mothership, some have expressed fears over a potential second wave of layoffs. They also share how many have gone for courses in a bid to upskill, or taken up other part-time jobs such as Transport Ambassadors. 

One of the most severely hit business entities amidst the Covid-19 pandemic has been Singapore Airlines (SIA), with up to 2,400 jobs cut in September, and more than 6,000 of its 27,000 staff having taken no-pay leave since March 2020.

In addition, the airline has cut the pay of its employees, managers, and bosses to by the following degrees, depending on their position:

  • 10 per cent for all staff below the level of manager,
  • 12 per cent for managers and senior managers,
  • 15 per cent for vice-presidents (VPs) and divisional VPs,
  • 25 per cent for Senior VPs,
  • 30 per cent for Executive VPs, and
  • 35 per cent for the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) .

An early retirement scheme has also been offered to ground staff and pilots aged 50 and above, who have at least 15 years of service, up to the level of divisional VP.

Given that SIA has since reported a net loss of S$212 million according to their FY2019/2020 annual report, it is unsurprising that CEO Goh Chong Phong said the airline must be prepared for “a long and hard Covid-19 induced winter”.

SIA cabin crew share their fears of being let go once their contract ends

A widespread sentiment among the staff was the fear of a potential second wave of layoffs, possibly taking place in the form of contracts not being renewed.

Several cabin crew whom Mothership spoke to shared that on the initial cut of 2,400 jobs, they said they understood that many of those retrenched were non-local cabin crew and with less than 2.5 years of service.

Even so, Alex* (not his real name), a steward with SIA for five years, said he was still "very worried". Some of his friends were also experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, especially with rumours of a potential second wave of retrenchment and the prospect of their contracts not being renewed.

Irene* (not her real name), a stewardess of nearly 25 years with SIA, admitted that she did not expect her contract to be extended once it ended in 2021, given that it had already been renewed five times — the maximum number according to her rank.

"Usually, we will get extended," she said. However, given the circumstances, it's "up to the company whether they want to give an extension".

As such, cabin crew whose contracts are ending soon "are all worried", regardless of whether they were reaching the maximum number of times it could be renewed.

Naomi* (not her real name), another stewardess of 18 years with SIA whose contract ends in two years, shared that they will receive a gratuity payout at the end of the contracts, regardless of whether it is renewed or not, and these payouts depend on rank.

Even then, fears are prevalent among her colleagues whose contracts are due to end in November, December and January, as they might be heading into uncertain times without a job.

Naomi also felt that the airline might become stricter with the criteria for contract renewal.

"If your performance is not good, the company has every right to let you go," she said.

Going for courses mean a better chance of remaining employed

The cabin crew we spoke to also shared that SIA has been encouraging retained staff to upgrade themselves in the meantime.

Irene highlighted that SIA's system of merit and demerit points was now based on whether cabin crew had taken courses outside of SIA, with one merit point for each external course. The chances of being retained are higher with a greater number of points.

Many cabin crew whose contracts are ending soon are taking at least one course outside, "to prove that they are doing something," Irene said.

"We have to use our SkillsFuture to take courses, so at least SIA will see that 'Oh, we are doing some upgrading' and might consider not retrenching us."

Apart from three courses she was taking within SIA pertaining to customer service, she was also taking two external courses — one on leadership role management and another on computers, as she has "zero knowledge" of them.

In addition, she thinks that these external courses will be helpful should she be let go once her contract ends, as her highest educational qualifications is only O-levels.

[Editor's note: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that Alex took courses from Yale-NUS. The courses that he took were from Yale via the Coursera platform. We have since updated the article to reflect this change]

In the case of Alex, he has taken about 20 courses both within and outside of SIA since the Circuit Breaker began, from multiple institutions and platforms including Yale via Coursera, LinkedIn and NTUC.

Taking courses is also the only thing that he can do at the moment, he said, given that he is on an employment pass and therefore unable to work.

Internal job portal for cabin crew open to Singaporeans and PRs only

SIA is helping to match its retained cabin crew to jobs so they may earn additional income during this time.

A source who has knowledge on the retrenchment proceedings stated that those still in the company have access to a job portal on their own intranet and receive emails from organisations such as NTUC and e2i for job placings.

According to Naomi and Irene, local cabin crew have also been provided with the following options.

They can either:

  1. Sign a waiver with SIA and take on a job with another company which will pay them their salary, while the airline continues to handle their medical benefits, or
  2. Continue taking their basic salary, while being able to take on hourly part-time jobs such as Transport Ambassadors.

According to Irene, the second option seems to be more popular, as she has heard some cabin crew have been able to take home up to S$3,000 a month.

For those of you unfamiliar with SIA's pay structure, a cabin crew's income consists of a basic salary, along with allowances.

For example, in the case of Alex, his basic pay is S$1,900 per month. He will receive an additional allowance of several hundred dollars for each flight he works on within that month, with the amount depending on the flight distance.

As for the nature of the jobs, Irene said roughly 80 per cent of the openings on the portal were for F&B positions, with the remainder for other types of jobs such as transport ambassadors, hospital and banking roles.

For foreign crew like Naomi and Alex, however, things are a little different.

Naomi that she was "a little bit sad" that such initiatives, like the job portal for cabin crew, are limited to Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PRs).

This means that the retained foreign crew cannot do anything apart from taking courses — a situation that has proven particularly difficult for Malaysian cabin crew.

The lack of flights and inability to take on other jobs means that their usual income is cut by 60 to 70 per cent, she elaborated.

Such crew now get by on mostly their basic pay, according to what she has heard from colleagues, with roughly half of their pay going to their rent and the rest for their own utilities, which has meant much difficulty in sending money home.

Informal initiatives to help foreign crew as well

Some informal initiatives have since emerged however.

Andrew Pang, the co-founder of the Facebook group Cabin Crew United, said that his group aimed to help cabin crew find job placements, regardless of whether they have been retrenched or retained, or whether they are local or foreign.

He is currently in discussions with the relevant agencies to allow foreign crew to hold a temporary work visa while they find a full-time job, and has also asked recruitment companies to help foreign crew as well.

Pang is a former SIA staff who worked for airline between 2012-2014.

Most feel that the retrenchment process has been handled well

Despite the difficulties, most still feel that the retrenchment process has been handled well.

Naomi pointed out that if SIA wanted to save more money, they could have let go of the senior crew first, who have a higher basic pay range.

However, the fact that it did not do so but adopted a "last in, first out" approach instead, is something, she said, which is "commendable."

As for Alex, he said that while ideally, nobody would have to leave, retrenching the new crew was the "fairest way for this to go" in such a situation.

"It's sad, it's really sad, but it is what it is," he said.

Naomi added that she had heard SIA has supposedly told the retrenched crew that they will be the first to be called back once the situation is better.

And while acknowledging that whether a contract will be renewed is ultimately up to the airline, she said:

"At the end of the day if a person does his/her work correctly, the individual is always an asset to the company."

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Top photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images