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Foreign pilots allege mistreatment by Korean Air during pandemic

South Korea’s largest airline accused of discriminating against foreign pilots for past 16 months

July 11, 2021 - 11:58 By Yim Hyun-su
A Korean Air plane is parked at Incheon Airport. (Yonhap)
Foreign pilots have accused Korean Air of mistreating them ever since the pandemic began early last year and forcing them to leave their belongings behind in South Korea.

A former B777 captain at the airline, who wished to stay anonymous, told The Korea Herald he had been placed on unpaid leave for the last 16 months and kept in the dark about his future, while his Korean colleagues had been given the choice to go on paid leave.

“They obliged us, in the real sense of the word, to sign this unpaid leave agreement,” he said.

“If not signed, they said they would have furloughed (staff),” he added.

By invoking a force majeure clause, the pilot said, the airline could avoid taking “any social responsibility,” including having to offer severance pay after cutting contracts short, and foreign pilots’ belongings were still stranded at a hotel in Seoul. A force majeure clause allows a company to depart from the terms of a contract because of circumstances beyond its control, such as a natural disaster.

“I didn’t like the way they treated me, and indirectly my family, because leaving people without any news, hope, financial aid or support is really not functional or like the first world country such as Korea,” the pilot said.

Korean Air has so far managed to deliver operating profit in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic -- a rare achievement in the aviation industry, which is among those hit hardest by the pandemic. But with many foreign pilots yet to return to work, the pilot said he feels “forgotten.”

“You cannot declare that you have an amazing financial status during 2020 and 2021 and forget about the people who have been producing this kind of income,” he said.

Foreign pilots at Korean Air are recruited through a third-party agency on a contract basis, which means they may be subject to different employment rules than Korean staff.

Employment retention subsidies helped major Korean airlines survive through the pandemic by allowing them to put staff on rotating shifts. They are, however, designed for those with employment insurance coverage, which is optional for foreign nationals hired by Korean companies.

Another pilot, whose contract was cut short by a few months as the pandemic hit the industry early last year, said he was treated unfairly by the airline.

“They treated us like something you can throw away without respecting the contract,” he said, adding that the airline terminated his contract through a force majeure clause.

Though Korean staff received 70 percent of their salary while on paid leave every other month for a period of time last year, the airline pushed foreign pilots to agree to unpaid leave without offering severance pay, the former Korean Air pilot said.

“We are all the same. We still have family at home and a contract to honor,” the second pilot said.

Korean Air said foreign cargo pilots have now returned to work, though passenger jet pilots have not, citing low air travel volume as a reason.

“With foreign pilots having to quarantine for two weeks when visiting their home country or returning to Korea, it is difficult for them to be recalled to the workplace,” a representative of Korean Air said in a statement.

“When demand for air travel recovers, we plan to bring foreign pilots back to work,” the representative said.

This is not the first time a Korean carrier has been accused of mistreating its foreign staff.

Last year a group of foreign pilots alleged discrimination by Asiana Airlines, saying they were placed on unpaid leave for months while their Korean colleagues worked 15 days out of every month and earned half their regular monthly salary.

Both Korean Air and Asiana Airlines have made headlines during this pandemic for being among the few airlines in the world to achieve operating profit after pivoting to the cargo business and receiving government subsidies.