Glass ceiling in the sky: Qatar Airways’ problem with pregnant cabin crew (

June 20, 2015

They’re firefighters, lifesavers and great hosts – but woe betide the Qatar Airways flight attendant who gets pregnant. As the airline comes under fire, Gwyn Topham reports on a profession that still has a foot in the 1950s

Round the back of one Gulf airline’s corporate HQ, a door opens into a hall dominated by a lifesize recreation of a passenger jet’s fuselage. Inside, a multinational class of young women demonstrate their grasp of safety drills and emergency procedures. The plane’s evacuation slide drops into a swimming pool, where recruits practise how to save passengers in the event of a flight ditching into the sea. In another mocked-up cabin, the women extinguish fires flaring in seats and overhead cabins.

This is the serious business of cabin crew training school. But whereas firefights, safety experts and lifesavers will stop here, female flight attendants pass down the corridor for the next chapter in their training, and one that some consider just as important: the beauty salon. Here, they will be given exact rules on mandated shades of makeup, hairstyling and uniform. For airlines, particularly at the top end of long-haul, cabin crew have long been a crucial part of the branding and marketing – focusing on young, attractive women, projecting a seductive modernity and glamour with smiling ease, but in truth, performing arduous tasks for long hours for little pay.

No wonder Qatar Airways wants to lock them up.

A judgment this week from the UN’s International Labour Organisation threw a renewed spotlight on working practices at the Gulf airline, which demands its crew live under curfew in monitored accommodation, and restricts their movements, relationships and family life. In particular, the ILO demanded the end of a lingering contractual clause allowing the airline to fire – or “terminate”, in Qatar’s peculiar parlance – crew in the event of pregnancy.

Past contracts had also stipulated a ban on marriage without express company permission; since pressure was first put on the airline by the ITF, the international transport workers’ federation, new contracts have been amended on both counts. One startling provision remains: that female crew cannot be driven to or from work by a man other than a family member. This, the airline says, is for “compliance with a particular cultural norm in Qatar”.

When the news broke of the ILO judgment, many outsiders responded with incredulity that a modern multinational could treat its employees in such a way. But within the industry, there was little surprise. For Qatar Airways is less unusual than it might seem – within the airline industry, or Qatar. And whether as a representative of its industry or country, its working practices point to a troubling anomaly in the culture of modern aviation that has deep roots in the past.

The Gulf carrier’s practices are not dissimilar from the grand tradition of earlier international aviation, when flying was associated with glamour and luxury, and a married, ageing or pregnant woman had no future at American airlines either. Some argue that airlines such as Qatar have built award-winning commercial success and a reputation for service that western airlines now find hard to emulate. Kathleen Barry, author of a history of flight attendants, Femininity in Flight, says: “When you start looking at the Middle Eastern and Asian carriers, they are upholding a tradition of flight service standards, and uniforms, that aren’t sustainable in an American and western European labour context.”

Yet Qatar’s contractual issues only tell part of the story: the ITF compiled testimony from employees describing a culture where minor lapses earned dismissal – with swift deportation from the Gulf following. One serving crew member claimed: “People get sacked daily for many stupid reasons, such as posting a picture in uniform, from a flight, your accommodation, having tattoos … The biggest problem is there are no workers’ rights in this country, so there’s nowhere to complain. 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 that many cannot afford.”

Accounts from past and serving crew who spoke to the Guardian – usually on condition of anonymity, having signed stringent confidentiality clauses in their contracts – confirm that breaches of formal and unspoken codes of conduct have led to careers being curtailed. Sherin Galal, a flight attendant, said she briefly found herself imprisoned after the airline “terminated” her and revoked her visa: medical staff had reported her to the airline’s grooming centre after spotting a small tattoo. Like other staff, she claims to have been left in limbo after suspension from the airline. Crew are hired from abroad, and Qatar’s “kafala” sponsorship system means workers cannot find other employment, but also cannot leave the country without the company authorising an exit permit.

One long-serving cabin attendant living in Qatar kept his marriage secret, claiming that airline staff made clear that if he applied for permission he would be sacked. He said: “I’m from the Middle East. This has nothing to do with culture or religion. It is all to do with control. We all need a job – that’s why we are here, that’s why we joined. But this isn’t what we signed up for.”

Qatar Airways says that there are only a handful of allegations, and points to the tens of thousands of crew it employs, and the numerous awards it has won. Even so, the stories remain startling – and do not only feature women. Ahmed Khalil, a cabin attendant who had been commended for good service, says he ended up imprisoned without charge for two nights and deported after briefly sticking chewing gum over the CCTV lens in the accommodation building.

One European attendant claims she was sacked and deported and told she was a “disgrace” after innocuous photos of crew in everyday clothes attending a private party were emailed to the airline’s boss. Before her experience, she said, she didn’t believe people when they said why they had been fired: “We thought they were lying and had done something bad – you think it must only be rumours – but here it’s happening to me. You’re living in a grey zone, you don’t know what is allowed.”

Gabriel Mocho Rodríguez, civil aviation secretary at the ITF, said: “Crew have told me their stories in tears. The fear they experienced they retain even after leaving the country.”

Qatar Airways has accused the ITF of a “vendetta”; in previous responses emailed to the Guardian it said the ITF was “very frustrated at not being able to operate in Qatar and is making inaccurate allegations”.

But others back the ITF’s claims. Some say they have been blacklisted from travel through the Gulf state after being sacked or resigning. The ILO’s ruling called on the Qatari government to push the airline to give foreign employees “appropriate complaint mechanisms to ensure that they can obtain redress without being exposed to stigmatisation or reprisals, and without the fear of being deported”. It observed that “access to such procedures and remedies by cabin crew members, who are migrant workers, may be difficult because of the fear of victimisation or reprisals, including dismissal and deportation from the country”.

It is hard to be sure where these draconian measures originate. But in Qatar and beyond, the airline’s chief executive, Akbar Al Baker, is a man who wields considerable power. And some recruits say that an encounter with his exacting standards can spell the end.

Jacques Nell, an ex-cabin attendant from South Africa, also “terminated” for having a tattoo on his arm (visible tattoos are forbidden at many airlines, but Nell’s were under his uniform) claims that after confronting Al Baker about unpaid wages, he ended up imprisoned for five nights to be “taught a lesson”. Nell said: “It’s a scary thought that this is happening to many people in Qatar and that they have such power to do this to the workforce.”

Qatar Airways has refused to comment on specific claims, although an airline spokesman said: “Qatar Airways does not arrest people, nor have any powers to do so.” Al Baker recently refused to answer direct questions at the global airlines annual summit in Miami, saying only: “I will not speak to the Guardian, you write negative things about Qatar.”

A spokesman for the airline said: “Candidates applying to work at Qatar Airways are fully aware of the rules and regulations prior to joining, and it is entirely their choice whether to join our five-star airline or not.”

As Qatar Airways points out, its employment conditions are not dissimilar to other airlines in the Gulf. Sympathetic sources argue that it is exercising, to some extent, a duty of care for thousands of young foreigners, predominantly women, who emigrate to work in the alien, conservative culture of the Gulf; that employees need to keep their nose clean and head down and work hard. That leaves little scope for human frailty among young recruits. One who was sacked after being arrested for holding hands in a cafe said: “I accept I made a mistake, but … You have to quit your job, leave everything behind – I invested quite a bit of money to get there.” Instead of a career, she found herself penniless in Qatar, waiting in the airline dormitories before finally being sent home.

There are signs Qatar Airways is changing: the contracts are rewritten, and the government insists that the airline company is working diligently to improve its policies, practices and benefits for cabin crew staff. But a glimpse of the mentality in Qatar Airways’ management was revealed by an email that found its way to the press earlier this year: a photo circulated to all crew of a senior flight attendant, apparently the worse for wear, crashed on the floor outside the staff HQ. A manager lamented: “How can we change rules when we do not behave as mature individuals?”

Onerous and unfavourable crew working conditions are not unique to the region though. Salaries are low throughout the industry – barely taxable at some UK airlines. Virgin Atlantic crew typically earn £11k basic, before earning extra for their flying hours. Ryanair claims its crew can earn up to €35,000 (£25,000), topped up by selling scratchcards, but other studies suggest a far lower average. Its crew are employed via a third party agency, Crewlink, which makes applicants pay €500 to register and then deducts a substantial training fee from new recruits’ wages.

And yet, of course, the allure of the skies remains. Airlines find recruits a plentiful commodity, and – when insured by training bonds and freed from international labour standards – a relatively disposable one.

In the big international airlines, the continued glamour and opportunity for long-haul flying is a major draw: one Virgin Atlantic stewardess, on wages below the UK poverty threshold, said she had absolutely no regrets at leaving a well-paid City job for the Branson stardust and global travel.

For others, the job has become more prosaic. Youth unemployment levels in Europe has led to highly qualified graduates searching out crew jobs. One Spanish Ryanair crew member told me he valued being able to get back home to bed in Luton each night after a series of rapid short hops around the continent.

But the catch-all term “cabin crew” masks a long-evolving role. According to historian Barry, the first attendants were exclusively men, on the small aircraft of the 1920s, when air travel was pioneering and adventurous; from the 1930s, when it was seen as less of a risky business, women were hired, eventually creating a sexual division of labour on the plane. “Men became pursers, or senior crew – but increasingly invisible to the public in terms of the cultural glamourisation. The image of the job became very feminised: looking after people, serving, looking great.”

By the 1960s, almost no one was hiring men. “Pan Am flipped towards women for the perceived psychological benefits: an ability to charm and make people feel at home – and then to become the hostesses for this very lavish party in the sky,” she adds.

Only, in fact, in the decade after the Civil Rights Act was passed in the US did many of their airlines stop the kind of practices for which Qatar has been reprimanded.

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