Qatar Airways still faces heat on female staff discrimination


Qatar Airways’ decision to stop firing female staff for becoming pregnant is seen as a victory for labour rights in the Gulf state, but an inquiry by the International Labour Organization (ILO) remains open as questions persist about other discriminatory practices.

The ILO tells Equal Times its inquiry into Qatar Airways is “still an ongoing case” and so could not comment.

Allegations noted by labour unions in the ILO’s 15 June report include sexual harassment, the prohibition of women employees to enter or leave company premises without a family member, and the monitoring of social media while off duty.

In a widely reported move, Qatar Airways has decided that women who become pregnant will no longer be fired but instead be offered temporary ground staff positions. And they won’t be fired for getting married in the first five years of employment, but must notify the company in advance.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) says it had been calling since 2013 for the rules to be changed at the airline, where women make up about 80 per cent of the 23,000-strong workforce worldwide.

“This is a real victory for Qatar Airways staff, and there are more victories to be won,” ITF Civil Aviation Secretary Gabriel Mocho tells Equal Times. “Our campaign for justice at the airline continues, now strengthened by this significant step forward. This also puts other airlines on notice that any similar policies will not be tolerated, although it has been Qatar Airways that has been the worst offender.”

“Qatar Airways has been shamed into action, and that’s a tremendous advance,” ITF President Paddy Crumlin said in a statement. “No amount of hiding behind ‘best airline’ awards has kept the truth about how staff are treated from emerging.”

The pregnancy policy is “the tip of the iceberg,” says Sharan Burrow, Secretary-General of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), in an interview with Equal Times.

“We call on Qatar Airways to reform the rest of their labour policies to ensure freedom of association and collective bargaining.”

“Notwithstanding this victory, the workplace for courageous employees remains oppressive under a system of slavery – the kafala system – which must be eliminated.”

The system, existing in a number of Middle Eastern countries, requires foreign employees to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status. Rights groups contend the system is prone to exploitation, as many employers take away passports and abuse their workers with little chance of legal repercussions.

By press time, Qatar Airways had not responded to Equal Times’ request for an interview.


"Climate of fear"

In the 15 June report, the ILO committee noted allegations of “direct and indirect discrimination on the basis of sex, including harassment” at Qatar Airways.

The airline’s policies included “the prohibition of women employees to enter or leave the company premises accompanied by a man other than their father, brother or husband”.

The report further noted accusations of “control of social media and private activities while off duty, acts of verbal harassment,” and that “reports were made to the ITF regarding the sealing of fire escapes and windows in the company accommodation in order to prevent employees from leaving the premises undetected.”

The committee also referred to allegations - described by the ITF publicly as a "climate of fear" - which include the “reluctance of crew members to submit complaints due to fear of retaliation, possible termination of employment and deportation from Qatar," and that the “lack of an adequate labour inspectorate impedes any form of meaningful investigation.”

Reporting the Qatar government’s reaction to the allegations, the report said authorities argued the “declaration of marital status” referred to in a revised contract is “to ensure that accurate records are maintained in order to comply with the legislation on residence.

The government rejected allegations of degrading treatment, harassment and surveillance of women cabin crew members, contending they are based on reports from a relatively small number of staff.

Nevertheless, the ILO Committee report concluded that: “the provisions of the earlier employment contract, as well as the new employment contract providing the company with the possibility to automatically terminate the employment of women cabin crew on the sole basis of pregnancy are discriminatory under Convention No. 111, and should be removed”.

The report also called on the airline to establish complaint mechanisms, including trained women labour inspectors, “to ensure that they can obtain redress without being exposed to stigmatisation or reprisals, and without the fear of being deported from the country”.

Despite the remaining issues, labour leaders see the recent developments at Qatar Airways as an encouraging sign that could embolden others who face similar abuses in the workplace, especially as Qatar prepares for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.