Nearly two years after a damning report by the International Labour Organisation painted a picture of widespread gender discrimination at Qatar Airways, the official UN body has closed its investigation into the airline.
The ILO inquiry into the state-owned airline had been triggered by a complaint made by the International Transport Workers’ Federation. They alleged that female cabin crew were routinely harassed, subject to dismissal for becoming pregnant and barred from getting married.
A Culture of Gender Discrimination
Witness testimony from former and serving cabin crew at Qatar Airways claimed discrimination and abuses were officially sanctioned by the airline. The allegations included:
- Fire escapes and windows in cabin crew residential buildings being sealed shut to prevent female staff from leaving without the knowledge of the airline,
- Social media and other communications of female crew being routinely monitored,
- Female crew barred from being picked up or dropped off at company buildings by anyone apart from a male relative,
- A culture in which female crew feared dismissal and deportation from the country if they raised concerns.
At the time of the alleged offences, Qatar Airways had a workforce of 23,000, mostly expatriate workers, 80% of whom were female.
After a year-long investigation that ended in 2015 the ILO found that Qatar had flouted international standards on the treatment of workers. In its report, the ILO highlighted two serious issues that they felt had not been adequately dealt with.
Pregnant Employees ‘Automatically’ Dismissed
Investigators raised serious concern about the treatment of female employees who became pregnant during their time at Qatar Airways. They found female cabin crew were being made to sign contracts that gave the airline the right to automatically dismiss them if they became pregnant.
During the ILO investigation Qatar Airways amended the contract:
“Cabin Crew are considered unfit to fly during pregnancy. Accordingly, the company reserves the right to automatically terminate your contract as a flying Cabin Crew Member should you become pregnant. … Should another suitable ground position with Qatar Airways be available during this period you may apply and undergo the recruitment process for the position if found suitable.”
The change gave pregnant cabin crew no guarantee that they would be allowed to remain at the airline and in effect allowed Qatar Airways to dismiss employees as they had done before.
The ILO probe also brought attention to a longstanding prohibition on cabin crew getting married – a restriction that was quickly lifted by Qatar Airways when the investigation began. The original ban prevented employees from tying the knot for the first five years of their employment – After which they could only then get married with the permission of the airline.
A Promise to End Discrimination
Qatar Airways has been roundly condemned by leading human rights groups over the treatment of its female employees. Only recently, The Alliance for Workers Against Repression Everywhere (AWARE), a US-based charity called for a boycott of Qatar Airways over allegations that widespread discrimination was ongoing.
The government of Qatar has recently moved to amend its Kafala employment system in which foreign workers must have a sponsor to stay in the country. Critics allege that the system deters expatriate workers from reporting discrimination or harassment for fear of having their sponsorship removed and being deported from the country.
In its own report, the ILO criticised Qatar Airways for having an ineffective employee complaints procedure which allowed harassment to go unpunished.
Despite such allegations, the official investigation into Qatar Airways has now been finalised by the ILO. In an emailed statement a spokesman said “the procedure had been closed” but could not elaborate any further on what action Qatar Airways had taken to satisfy the ILO that its recommendations had been implemented.
Qatar Airways has said that the ban on marriage has been lifted and female crew who become pregnant will no longer find themselves out of a job but instead found temporary ground-based roles. As the company has grown and ‘matured‘, Qatar Airways claims so has its working practices and past allegations do not reflect the current treatment of staff at the airline.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.