Although our blog is primarily concerned with cases that fall within the jurisdiction of England and Wales there are occasionally international cases which warrant comment. One such is the recent ruling of the International Labour Organisation, part of the United Nations, that Qatar Airways has discriminated against its female employees. Qatar Airways describes itself as the “World’s Best Airline”. Operating to over 140 destinations worldwide it has offices in Kensington, London and operates a premium lounge as part of its “five star service” for corporate customers at Heathrow Airport. Part of its website is devoted to social responsibility, including environmental awareness, commitment to limiting its carbon footprint and social projects to benefit children. However, the treatment of its female employees leaves a great deal to be desired.
Although the airline operates from its hub in Doha, it undertakes recruitment in the United Kingdom, as demonstrated by a pending recruitment fair at Heathrow on 11 and 12 July. On 16 June the ILO announced that, following a year long investigation it had concluded that the contract of employment for cabin crew breaches its convention against discrimination at work. The contract includes the following clause:
The company reserves the right to automatically terminate your contract as a flying cabin crew member should you become pregnant.
In effect there is no maternity leave; pregnancy equals loss of employment. Failure to disclose pregnancy would constitute a breach of contract by the employee concerned. The ILO also asked Qatar Airways to explain a requirement in the contract that employees must “obtain prior permission from the company in case [he or she] wishes to change marital status and get married” – a clause which has since been dropped. According to a report in The Guardian 80% of Qatar Airways 9000 cabin crew are female and 90% are migrants.
When asked about the decision Akbar Al Bakr, chief executive of Qatar Airways said, “I don’t give a damn about the ILO – I am there to run a successful airline”.
Other allegations made include a bar on marriage during the first three to five years of employment and thereafter permitted only at the company’s discretion, staff being confined to company premises during mandatory 12-hour rest periods and bans on overnight stays away from staff accommodation, even when off duty.
All workers are also required to sign confidentiality agreements which stay in effect even after the leave the company. Use of mobile phones and “other entertainment gadgets” is strictly forbidden when in uniform and female staff are strictly forbidden from changing into civilian clothes at any airport. Other than Qatar Airways’ own transport, limousines and taxis, female crew may not be picked up and dropped from any Qatar Airways premises by any male other than her father, brother or husband. Paddy Crumlin, president of the International Transport Workers’ Federation said:
The labour relations at Qatar Airways are a running sore on the face of the global aviation industry. Autocratic, overbearing and near-dictatorial, this airline gains control and competitive advantage by ignoring International Labour Organization conventions on worker rights. Its treatment of its employees borders on the appalling.
“In its current form it is not a fit partner for the members of the oneworld alliance. Its inclusion is a disgrace. If it is going to be accepted as a world class airline then it has to make fundamental changes throughout its entire structure. Those changes have to start at the top, with the replacement of its CEO, Akbar Al-Bakr, who is responsible for much of the disastrous relations with its own employees – and then be carried right through Qatari society, as the recent shocking revelations about the treatment of construction workers there demands.