It may promote itself as the height of luxury travel but, for its female employees, Qatar Airways reaches new lows in terms of sexist labour practises in the aviation industry.
As well as demanding that single female employees can only get married after five years’ service – and even then, only after obtaining permission – pregnancy is also punishable by termination of contract.
“Women transport workers deserve better,” says the ITF protest letter.
“We believe that decent companies respect women’s rights. Your slogan says that you are the world’s five-star airline – it’s time to start acting like one”.
Since launching in 1994, Qatar Airways has played a major part in the growth of Qatar, which is per capita, the richest country in the world.
The majority of the airline’s customers are Qatari investors and migrant workers.
These 1.4 million migrant workers – mainly from countries like Nepal, India, Philippines, Pakistan and Iran – harbour dreams of earning enough money to build a better life for themselves and their families back home.
But for most, the reality couldn’t be more different.
Foreign workers, who make up 95 per cent of the private sector workforce in Qatar, have few labour rights, and some, particularly in the construction industry work in conditions that have been likened to “21st century slavery”.
Unions are illegal and all migrant workers are trapped by kafala (sponsorship) which International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow describes as “a feudal system that locks men and women away inside the country with no rights and no voice.”
It’s for this reason that the ITUC has been leading the call for the 2022 World Cup to be held somewhere other than Qatar – unless the Gulf monarchy begins to respect workers’ rights.
The migrant workers who build the World Cup stadia are subject to appalling working conditions and live in squalid labour camps.
It has been estimated that some 4000 workers are likely to die before the first kick-off at the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar Airways staff on the four daily flights between Doha and Kathmandu flights often see coffins onboard.
A different kind of fear
But while most of Qatar Airways’ 17,000 employees – 90 per cent of which are non-Qatari – aren’t in danger of sudden heart failure or dying in preventable workplace accidents, cabin crew do know a different kind of fear.
A recent expose published on the Swedish news website Expressen.se revealed the full extent of what goes on behind the company’s glamorous façade.
It’s a place where female workers aren’t allowed to talk to men in public and live under constant surveillance – as well as the unwanted gaze of Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al-Baker.
He is well-known for his abrasive behaviour, and has made no secret of his disdain for unions.
“If you did not have unions you wouldn’t have this jobless problem in the Western word,” he told Arabian Industry magazine last June.
“It is caused by unions making companies and institutions uncompetitive and bringing them to a position of not being efficient.””
Foreign Qatar Airways employees live in staff housing where they are forced to follow a strict curfew. Their entrances and exits are closely monitored –as are visitors.
These human and labour rights violations are made even more unbearable by the kafala visa sponsorship system which ties workers to their employers. As a result, workers need permission to move to a different employer or leave the country.
“The biggest problem is there are no workers’ rights in this country so there’s nowhere to complain,” one former Qatar Airways employee told the ITF.
“If you don’t like anything you simply get sacked and if that happens before completing two years with the company you have to pay a bond which many cannot afford.”
For Paddy Crumlin, President of the ITF, the only solution now is for “fundamental changes to be made in its entire structure,” – specifically the replacement of Al-Baker as CEO.
“Employment relations at Qatar Airways is an open wound in the face of the global aviation industry,” he told Expressen.se.