Stranded workers face empty pay packets and big hotel bills
THOUSANDS of workers stranded abroad could return home to face empty pay packets on top of massive overseas bills.
Employers' representative group IBEC last night revealed some businesses were asking their staff to use up holiday time, while others were granting unpaid leave.
"Employers have generally taken a pragmatic approach and while this is a significant issue for employers we are finding that they are generally applying good practice and are being flexible with their employees," IBEC director Brendan McGinty said.
The Irish Independent has learnt workers who are stranded abroad on holiday leave but due back in work do not have to be paid while they are away.
However, businesses asking their staff to use up holiday time while they are stuck overseas could be leaving themselves open to legal challenge as holiday leave is a health and safety issue.
"A rights commissioner could take the view that camping out in an airport lounge is not 'rest and recreation' under the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997," Melanie Crowley, a partner at legal firm Mason Hayes and Curran, told the Irish Independent.
In the case of staff being stuck overseas on work-related business, the obligations on the employer are different as these employees are not away on their own time.
To add to the cash headaches, Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary yesterday vowed not to reimburse stranded passengers' hotel and meal expenses.
As consumer fury mounted over Ryanair thumbing its nose at EU laws while the EU and consumer watchdogs reiterated the airline's legal duty to passengers, Mr O'Leary claimed the regulations had not been designed for the unprecedented circumstances of the last week.
He said Ryanair would not pay out any more than the sum originally paid for tickets.
The airline chief said it was "absurd" people had the right to submit a claim for thousands of euro in hotel accommodation when they had only paid €20 or €30 for the airfare.
"I'm fairly sure that the regulator will be taking a court action against us and we will look forward to seeing that (day) in court because frankly I think this is a great opportunity for the airlines to expose this nonsense," he told RTE radio.
"You can't expect to travel for a €10 airfare or €20 airfare but then turn around and try to reclaim a week's holiday from the airlines."
Mr O'Leary said the blanket ban on flights around Europe had gone "too far" and accused transport ministers, regulators and governments of failing to react quickly enough.
"One of the issues we want addressed is why exactly are the airlines expected to be reimbursing people's hotels and meals and everything else when the governments are the ones who made a balls of this?" he added.
But in contrast, Aer Lingus last night vowed to meet their legal obligations to passengers.
The EU Commission for Transport said the law on passenger rights was very clear and airlines were well aware of their duty of care, including food, drink and accommodation, for customers.
They were in close touch with national enforcement bodies around Europe, and Ryanair was the only case they had heard of so far involving an airline refusing to meet their obligations, a commission spokesman said.
A spokesman said passengers should seek reimbursement for these expenses from their airlines and if they could not get it they should go to the national enforcement body in the country where the incident occurred.
A group of commissioners will examine the economic consequences of the volcanic crisis and the impact of these regulations to see what lessons could be learned for the future.
But despite Mr O'Leary's defiance, the spokesman warned the law applied during the current crisis.
The National Consumer Agency also called on Ryanair to honour passenger entitlements and urged customers to keep all relevant receipts to help them with their claims.
The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) said all passengers -- including those booked on current scheduled flights and those whose flights were cancelled over the past six days -- must be advised of the revised airline schedules.
The authority said airlines would give priority to people booked to fly on the day, then deal with the backlog.
Both the IAA and the UK Civil Aviation Authority are continuing to monitor the effects of ash on safe aircraft operations.
Meanwhile, a small number of students missed oral and practical Leaving Cert exams because they were trapped overseas.
However, the State Examinations Commission reassured them last night that arrangements would be made for them at the end of the school year.
Tomorrow is the normal finishing date for oral tests in Irish, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Japanese.