Qatar Airways Defends Itself Over Mistreatment of Employees

Last month I linked to an article about working conditions at Qatar Airways.

Qatar judges potential flight attendants on looks and personality, and no tattoos are allowed.

Employment policies include,

At the tryouts, information is shared about what the employees are signing up for. A pledge to stay single for five years, that permission from CEO Akbar Al Baker is required to marry as a flight attendant, and if you become pregnant, you must inform the company immediately. Also, Qatar Airways reserves the right to fire an employee without having to give a reason.

Qatar closely monitors flight attendant behavior both on duty and off. And, typical of employment in the region,

The entire country of Qatar adheres to a sponsorship system where the employer dictates the right of the employees to enter and exit the country, housing and they have a certain level of control of the employee’s bank account.

…Flight attendants, on the other hand, must request an exit visa for every trip. The chance to leave Qatar is used as leverage in a game of punishment, where six months of rejected exit visas is common punishment for a flight attendant who has done something wrong and issued a warning.

The piece passes along some hint of the rumors of expectations the airline’s CEO has for a subset of its flight attendants.

Qatar Airways has now responded to the allegations.

At the ITB travel fair in Berlin, Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar al Baker condemned the article and said people were attacking Qatar because it had won the right to host the 2022 soccer World Cup.

While Qatar Airways may make a better target as 2022 actually approaches, because of increased international scrutiny, it seems far more important whether the criticisms are (1) accurate and (2) actually a problem.

Regarding the requirement that flight attendants not marry,

“You know they have come there to do a job and we make sure that they are doing a job, that they give us a good return on our investment,” Al Baker said.

He also said that Qatar Airways made no secret of the conditions to employees, and provided them with a document stating the terms and conditions of their employment.

“If you come to seek employment with Qatar Airways we give you a document that these are the rules and regulations, if you as a mature individual accept those conditions, then you shouldn’t complain.”

Regarding terminating pregnant flight attendants,

He said because local regulations prevented pregnant cabin crew from flying and the company did not have many ground jobs available for them, pregnant women must often leave.
“We are not in the business where we can guarantee ground jobs or let people stay away … and don’t do anything for the airline,” he said.

Pregnancy terminations are common with Gulf airlines, the piece points out, and not specific to Qatar.

And the jobs are desirable enough to attract many candidates.

Antinori and Al Baker highlighted the other benefits offered to employees, such as tax-free income and paid-for accommodation.

..”Last year, we had 129,000 applications for cabin crew at Emirates. I do not think these are conditions that are making people reluctant to work for us,” he said.

So am I convinced?

As long as employment terms are clear my concerns about conditions in the UAE and in Qatar in particular really do not center around marriage and family requirements that flight attendants have to agree to in order to take these jobs.

For many, clearly, the pay and opportunities are far better than what they would have otherwise and so these requirements do not at all serve as a deterrent to applying for and accepting the positions.

My real concerns lie with the policies and practices that go unresponded to in the piece. It is no coincidence, I’m sure, that the more relatively defensible policies are the ones that the airline is choosing to speak to.

And in some sense I also think that points to a weakness in the original piece. Mixing together policies that may be anathema in the West and yet entirely voluntary and less damaging alongside much more harmful issues — holding of workers’ passports, which allows a company to exercise total dominion over an employee’s existence and a culture that may allow for the possible or rumored expectations of ‘companionship’ from flight attendants are far graver accusations and concerns.

Those go unanswered in the piece, and strike deeply at the heart of laws and norms which are embedded in these societies rather than being specific to any one airline or any one company doing business in the region.

Hopefully world attention in 2022 will shed a light on some of these things. China certainly made major efforts to appear positively on the world stage when it hosted the Olympics. Russia’s Sochi Winter Olympics may not have had the same effect.

What do you think? Are you persuaded by Qatar’s defense of its working conditions? Am I – unpersuaded – still too soft on them?

(HT: Point Me to the Plane)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I pretty much agree with your take on this, Gary. And I appreciate your maintaining some attention to this matter, even if it’s not usually the kind of thing you write about.

    The only context I’d add to this issue is that even the more egregious kinds of mistreatment of Qatar’s flight attendants pale in comparison with the how many guest workers building the World Cup facilities there have suffered, including fatalities.

  2. This kind of treatment is the norm in many countries. That this is happening in Qatar should be no surprise to anyone who is familiar with working in the Middle East. I do believe that the vast majority of people know exactly what they are getting into, however there are certainly some for whom it is a major surprise.

    That said, most, if not all, of the QR flight attendants are in a significantly superior financial situation than they would be working in their home countries. That’s the tradeoff, which clearly almost everyone is willing to make.

    I don’t condone the behavior of Qatar Airways, but I know that, for the most part, it’s a tradeoff that people are consciously making.

  3. human rights is human rights, doesnt matter where you come from. there shouldn’t be a standard for FAs from diff countries just cuz its a poor country (and ‘shouldn’t expect more’) – i hate that mentality.

  4. Why is it that there is still some romantic notion abroad about the “Middle East”, similar to the prevailing view in Lawrence of Arabia’s time? No civilized country in the Western world would even dream of allowing the sort of sexist work practices that exist in Qatar and at Qatar Airways. Employee protection legislation is designed to make sure that workers are not taken advantage of. Being an Air Stewardess is still viewed as a great job. Free trips abroad, free hotels nights in the world’s best lodging houses. Of course there are many job applicants but does that mean that the conditions are right, moral or fair? No is the answer. Fired because you have the nerve to get pregnant. What you want to get married, get out of here. Being ogled at when you get to your job interview? What else is subtly demanded of the boys and girls who yearn to work for Akbar al Baker’s cosy company?

  5. I think Singapore flight attendants get fired if they become pregnant as well. Or at least suspended or reassigned or something.

  6. I agree with you and Chris. As far as human rights go, unfortunately our view of human rights (I’m American) is vastly different in China or in the middle east.
    With other airlines available for employment like Emirates and Etihad, I’d imagine EK and EY would get the creme de la creme of candidates given they’d have more ‘freedom’ in the UAE than in Qatar working for QR.
    While this is slightly off topic, the whole QR recruitment process reminded me of this NYT article about American all-female colleges enjoying a bounty of recruits from the middle east. In both situations, there are items that were clearly set in writing in terms of what to expect; yet there were still ‘surprises’ when the recruits arrived on campus. 😉

  7. Shame on the Sydney Morning Herald (and other news outlets) for simply parroting the following sentence, which they don’t put in quotes but was apparently fed to them by QR: “Cabin crew across the world may not work on board airplanes once pregnant due to health concerns, although some countries allow them to work for up to three months into the pregnancy.” FAs in the United States can work through and including the 31st week of pregnancy. (At least that is UA’s rule; I don’t know the cutoff for other carriers, but it is nothing like three months.)

  8. The CEO is right that the conditions are set out right and whether you accept it or not it is up to you. As a mature adult you make a choice and live up to your end of the bargain. Nothing that will happen in regards to their “transparent” policies should be a surprise. However, the root of the issue is far deeper than just QR as others have pointed out. All these immigrants that come into the ME countries are second class citizens. They are looked as an easily dispensable tool. Good enough as long as their goals can be met. You won’t see a male citizen of the country treated in the same regard. In addition over hundreds of years their mentality has evolved into treating women as second class citizens. If you read the employment terms for QR it is really addressed towards women. Look at Saudia Arabia where they wouldn’t let women drive until recently. You can look on TED talks for the women who spoke about this.

    While people are aware of these problems they won’t do anything about it because it doesn’t affect them or they are receiving some sort of benefit and don’t really care.

    This stuff is barely scratching the surface.

  9. “They knew the terms of employment before they signed their contracts” is, perhaps, an answer to the question of whether employees should be able to turn around and sue (or otherwise seek redress). But it’s no answer to the question of whether we, as customers, should choose to do business with companies that impose such terms on their employees.

  10. While I agree that this is a concerning issue, I am concerned by your somewhat unclear grasp of geography. You say, “As long as conditions are clear my concerns about conditions in the UAE and with Qatar in particular…” Qatar is not part of the seven emirates that composes the United Arab Emirates and in fact an independent nation. While your concern is commendable, you credibility is at risk when your background facts are muddled.

  11. @Michael M – The reference is intended to be to both the UAE and to Qatar, I have modified a few words to make that more clear. The article talks about Emirates having similar practices as Qatar, so my judgment about employment terms in both places is what I was trying to refer to. Sorry for any confusion! (The “with Qatar in particular” was because the original article, and the accusations of a prurient sort, were specifically made about Qatar rather than Emirates)

  12. Ah ok – gotcha! It’s a great point. Friends at Emirates were often concerned for their colleagues at Qatar due to the high burnout and even suicide rate.

  13. I certainly believe we as customers should make it a point to stand up for human rights……..Look back at South Africa and the investment pressures certainly had an effect……….that said I have Zero problem with an airline limiting tattoos up front and also clearly stating they can’t work pregnant if they clearly stated that up front…’s a safety thing and I wouldn’t want any relative or friend of mine put in that situation as a first responder……….now holding passports and denying visas for various complaints is clearly out of bounds………..

  14. Practices such as these are one reason (among many) that I will NEVER fly any of the Gulf carriers, or visit any of their countries.

  15. Hi All

    I pointed out the article in a comment to Lucky’s blog. As a resident of Qatar I have to adhere to the working law conditions. My company is not 100% owned by Qatar so It is flexible (full exit permits, no passport holding, maternity leave for my wife who is working etc).

    The problem arises when you bring and “sponsor” someone (you have to do it by law) and then that person makes an offense… the person is punished and so is the company! in this case the person who sign the sponsorship.

    That is not the case in other countries like USA, where a green card is sponsored but you get 100% accountability of your act, not the company.

    I think that Qatar realizes this and they are working to solve the issue.

    Final point: the article is right, it shouldn’t be like that, and Qatar Airways CEO is right, is not the airline, is the country people is trying to question about.

    It is just that the airline is a global company.

  16. Good lord man, get a life. Once you figure out the rest of world isn’t out here wishing they were American, life will be much easier. Stay in your cocoons. At least until your fast food fed asses won’t fit in them anymore.

  17. @Drew I’m perplexed about how rabid anti-Americanism is an answer to charges of human rights abuses in Qatar.

    Marriage and pregnancy rules during a defined contract period, that are disclosed and agreed to before accepting employment, are no problem for me.

    But holding someone hostage by keeping their passport and denying exit visas is no longer voluntary employment. Now we are talking about at least indentured servitude. Add in freezing bank accounts and the line between that and a sort of “soft” slavery begins to blur.

  18. I fully agree with the viewpoints that the way that these FA’s are treated is not right. However, I think we’re getting indignant about this specific treatment of FAs only because this is an industry that is directly associated with our chosen hobby.

    In the whole scope of things in the world, the treatment of non-FAs in Qatar and other Middle Eastern countries is significantly worse (as evidenced by the fact that there are so many applications to be Qatar FAs). Again, the treatment of Qatar FAs needs to be improved, but any public focus would be better served to be trained on those suffering much worse conditions in Qatar.

  19. How does that whole “exit visa” thing even work for foreign citizens? Let’s say I’m an American working for Qatar, could they really stop me from going home if I wanted to – even if I needed to involve the US Embassy?

  20. Ed, even countries without exit visas can prevent a visitor from leaving. Here’s an excerpt from the State Department regarding Israel, which does not in general require exit visas:

    “Civil courts in Israel actively exercise their authority to bar certain individuals, including nonresidents, from leaving the country … In some cases, U.S. citizens who entered Israel as tourists have become defendants in divorce or custody cases filed by their spouses in Israeli religious courts … Such visitors should be aware that they might be subject to involuntary and prolonged stays in Israel if a case is filed against them in a religious court, even if their marriage took place in the United States and regardless of whether their spouse is present in Israel.”

  21. This is not peculiar to Israel. The Courts in almost every country in the Western “civilised” world have the power to bar defendants, and not just in matrimonial matters but any civil claim, leaving the country. The difference between that exercise of judicial power and the examples given in the discussion about Qatar Airways, is that Qatar Airways is not a court of law. They reserve the right to just sit on an employee’s passport because in the airlines eyes the employee has done something “wrong”.

  22. if you become pregnant, you must inform the company immediately — For terms of safety while flying yes, other than that no

    Qatar Airways reserves the right to fire an employee without having to give a reason —Most US States call this “Employment at will” In the USA you can be terminated for any reason for with or with out cause.

    Regarding the requirement that flight attendants not marry — The catholic church as the SAME requirement.

    If you don’t like the terms then go get a job at McDonalds or over at Emirates Airlines

    Do not forget this is a country rules by civil and Islamic law.

  23. This is a true fact…….in California we ban illegal aliens from leaving the state…………

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