Hong Kong pilot union leader fights Cathay Pacific over retirement

A former pilots' union leader who fought Cathay Pacific in one of the most bitter industrial disputes in Hong Kong's recent history was Friday preparing to take the airline to court over his retirement, dpa reported.

Nigel Demery, 55, claims he is being denied the chance to stay on beyond normal retirement age at the Hong Kong-based airline because of his union activities when he was president of the Aircrew Officers Association.

Briton Demery, a pilot with Cathay Pacific for more than 20 years, claims all other cockpit crew are allowed to stay on as freighter pilots when they reach 55 but his application was rejected on what he described as "a technicality."

He was Friday preparing to take his claim, which is strongly denied by the airline, to an industrial tribunal hearing where he will argue he has been forcibly retired because of his union role.

A Boeing 747 captain, Demery led the union when it fought a bitter battle against Cathay Pacific over pay and rosters that resulted in the sacking of 49 pilots by the airline.

Demery resigned from the union when it decided in 2005 to stop funding legal action against Cathay Pacific by the so-called 49ers and helped set up a rival unofficial union called the Cathay Pilots Union to continue the fight on their behalf.

Speaking ahead of his tribunal hearing, Demery said: "I'm not really surprised at all by what has happened ... when you stand up and put your head above the parapet, the odd arrow whistles past your ear."

   "I have filed a complaint with the Labour Tribunal and part of it is for union discrimination. They are not extending me, but they are extending a person with the same birthday as me and someone who retired a few days earlier, so it is clearly because of my union activities."

Cathay Pacific denied the allegation and said Demery was not offered an extension because he applied to switch to a position as a freighter captain a year ago and then changed his mind shortly before he was due to take it up.

"Under a long-standing and well-established policy ... an officer who declines the awarded vacancy within three months of its effective date will not be eligible to bid for another freighter vacancy for 12 months," said an airline spokesman.

"Captain Demery was ineligible to bid for another freighter vacancy until mid-March 2009, by which time he will have retired. This has nothing to do with whether or not Captain Demery is a union member, or is it related to any union activity in which he may have participated."

A preliminary hearing into Demery's case against Cathay Pacific is expected to take place later in March. Meanwhile, a claim by 18 of the 49ers for unfair dismissal is due to be heard in Hong Kong's High Court on March 2.

Cathay Pacific, which last year announced its first losses since 2003 because of the global credit crunch, is one of the world's biggest airlines and carries more than 20 million passengers a year.

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