Vijay Mallya must have barely had any time to enjoy the promise of the Rs 515 crore from spirits giant Diageo, when the deal was stalled by the Debt Recovery Tribunal in Bengaluru. On March 7, the Enforcement Directorate lodged a money laundering case against Mallya; until it was resolved, the DRT said, Diageo should not to pay the “severance package” to former UB group chairman.
Among those invested in the outcome of the case is a consortium of 17 state-owned and private banks, led by State Bank of India, which is hoping to recover dues amounting to over Rs 7000 crore. The banks have alleged that Mallya diverted at least Rs 4000 crore of the money he borrowed from them to tax havens like Mauritius and the Cayman Islands.
While Mallya has since flown to the UK, from where he has been tweeting about his “non-absconder status”, another group of individuals — former employees of his now defunct Kingfisher Airlines, numbering about 3000, according to this report in The Economic Times — have been left with unpaid dues amounting to over Rs 300 crore.
Kingfisher started in 2005, and had stalled by December 2012. In February 2014, even though he owed his employees salary arrears running into crores, Mallya spent around Rs 30 crore on his IPL team, the Royal Challengers.
For some of those employees, the arrears ran into Rs 20-25 lakh each. Many of them have been following his deal with Diageo and the other developments this week closely, and several joined in penning an open letter to Mallya, alleging that he misled the government and his employees, and has “blood on his hands”.
Yamini Joshi-Mukherjee was a senior engineer certifying aircrafts for Kingfisher in Delhi and eight months pregnant when things began to go downhill. While several other employees stopped working in protest, she continued her certifications until July 2013. She had received her last salary on July 2012, but stayed on because she was worried that no one would hire her at such an advanced stage of pregnancy. She finally resigned in August 2014.
“We faced so much grief, even from our fellow colleagues (who were protesting),” recounted Yamini to Firstpost. “I was abused, my car was damaged, people called up my husband asking him to make me stop working. But I continued, thinking things at Kingfisher would revive. Somewhere we also believed that since we were doing everything we could for the company, had stood by Kingfisher during the bad times, the company would stand by us too.” Incidentally, Yamini had joined Air Deccan in 2004, and became a Kingfisher employee when the latter took over Deccan in 2008.
Yamini says that many of her colleagues did not find work even a year after Kingfisher stopped operations. She herself took a 50 per cent pay cut to get her present job at Air Asia. “I even considered getting a job at a call centre for a while, because I wasn’t getting anything else,” she said. When she finally got a job, it was in Bengaluru. Her husband had relocated to Mumbai from Delhi by then, and he still resides here with their little daughter. “I’m still suffering the burns Kingfisher has given me, and there’s a lot of anger,” she admitted.
Another employee who has been following the news keenly is Jayanth, who was an executive at Kingfisher. He was with the airline from 2006-13, and on the company’s rolls till it closed. “I wasn’t even one of those who was earning in lakhs; my salary was just Rs 40000. I was not paid for a year, and after that I didn’t have a job for another year. For two-and-a-half years, my life was ruined. My entire family suffered,” Jayanth told us.
The same sentiment was voiced by another Kingfisher employee on condition of anonymity. “I lost a lot of money due to non-payment of salary and miscellaneous dues. I left the airline in 2012, and my full and final clearance is still due. What I suffered will remain with me till the end of my life,” the employee said.
It wasn’t just that they weren’t receiving their salaries from Kingfisher — some employees feel that the airline set a “bad example” to others in the aviation industry. Moreover, many of the jobs required such a specialised skill-set, that it severely limited the opportunities these employees had access to.
Rohan Balra, a pilot with Kingfisher who is based out of Mumbai, told us that he is trained to fly ATRs— aircrafts that are smaller than the Airbus. “So for pilots and cabin crew, our options were severely limited, as opposed to ground crew, who might have been able to get jobs in other industries, such as hospitality. Apart from Kingfisher, Jet Airways was the only other airline that was operating ATRs, and they had enough pilots. If you wanted to fly an Airbus, you would have had to invest another Rs 30 lakh in the training,” Balra said.
Balra, who had joined Kingfisher in 2007, estimates that the airline owes him something in the range of Rs 80-90 lakhs. Along with a few colleagues, Balra filed a case with the Labour Commissioner in Bengaluru; they attended between 20-25 hearings. In 2012, they even filed a case in court, but there have been no developments on that front. “Knowing our system, if at all, it will be my daughter who gets the money that’s due to me,” he said.
Some employees were luckier. Nidhi was training as a pilot with Kingfisher when it became evident that the airline was facing a slowdown. “When that happened, they decided not to have too many pilots in the air. As a pilot, you need to log hours, and I wasn’t logging any hours. So I decided to leave,” Nidhi said. “This was in 2009, and things were pretty slow even then. A lot of people were affected.”