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Heathrow strike: Most sacked employees Indians

Last updated on: August 13, 2005 20:20 IST

Asians, mostly Indians, were among the majority of 800 workers sacked by a catering firm at Heathrow airport, which triggered a wildcat strike by British Airways ground staff, disrupting flights and leaving thousands of people stranded.

Hundreds of ground staff walked out on Thursday in support of workers fired by US company Gate Gourmet, BA's in-flight meal supplier. Tara Shah, 39, and her husband Kiran worked at the catering firm. She was one of those sacked over megaphone.

Kiran was off for the day so he was sacked through a letter.

British Airways staff return to work

"Many couples have been sacked," she told reporters. "We don't know what we are going to do. We have four children and a mortgage to pay.  The way we have been treated is shocking."

Tara Shah said the company appeared to have miscalculated the scale of the opposition. "We are very strong and we are angry.  This gives me hope."

Another sacked employee Sabajit Sidhu, a mother of two from Slough, said managers underestimated the resilience of their workers and the ties that unite airport workers of all races, ages, religions and both sexes.

"I work for Gate Gourmet but some of my relatives are baggage handlers," she said. "I am very proud of the fight we are showing. They treated us terribly.

"We were held in the canteen for hours and then they just pushed us out of the building. I worked there for six years. I think they have made a big mistake," said Sidhu.

Harinder Atwal, 45, joined the company a decade ago. The mother of three was a senior shop steward and said relations between staff and senior managers seemed to deteriorate 18 months ago.

"They wanted to reduce our pay. The drivers would go from £8 an hour to £6.35 and overtime would go to a flat rate.  They wanted five days' sick pay instead of 25. Six or seven months ago they said they needed 675 redundancies but then they sought to bring in the seasonal staff.

"The new managers are from Germany and they want us to work in a way they are accustomed to. The managers used to understand their workforce but not anymore," said Atwal.

The outcome of the dispute will have implications not just for the running of the airport, but also for many of the largely Asian neighbourhoods that surround it.

Heathrow draws on the Asian communities of Southall, Slough, Hounslow, Hayes, Ealing and Brentford in the recruitment of its 70,000 workforce.

Women and men from those areas work as baggage handlers, security, cleaning staff and immigration staff at the airport. But they are also heavily employed by ancillary industries.

Owing to the strike, British Airways was now facing a £30 million legal battle with passengers over its refusal to pay cash compensation for cancelling 600 flights in the past two days, reports said.

Under the European passenger rights regulation, which came into force in February, passengers are entitled to cash payments of up to £400 if their flight is cancelled with less than two weeks' notice.

Bitish Airways resumed flights to and from Heathrow Airport when the walkout by its ground crew ended on Friday.

But the airline said it would take several days to fully restore its service. A BA spokeswoman said seventy thousand BA passengers were stranded on Friday.

H S Rao in London
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