One of the United Kingdom’s most senior trade unionists has told British Airways it is “high time to relegate expectations of makeup, heel length and buttoned up jackets to the history books.” The call came from Diana Holland, the assistant General Secretary of the Unite union in an open letter to BA’s chief executive Alex Cruz in which she went on to ask Cruz to “empower and consult your staff to make the necessary decisions about the uniform they wear.”
The letter contains a number of allegations which raises concern about “sexualisation of the uniform” and gender sterotypes that surround the female uniform. One allegation focuses on the fact that the uniform blouse is considered to be too transparent – According to Holland, female cabin crew who are part of BA’s cheaper to hire ‘Mixed Fleet’ have been disciplined for wearing the wrong colour or type of bra.
“In the 21st century, it is clearly neither appropriate nor acceptable that women should be put in a situation at work where they can be demeaned for their choice of undergarments,” Holland tells Cruz in the strongly worded letter.
“I have been advised that men are not told what underwear to put on or how tight or baggy it should be. There are clearly serious issues here of health, safety, dignity, respect and equality,” she continues.
Holland also says she was “shocked” to learn that female cabin crew must ask permission to remove their uniform jacket – even if they are overheating. “There is an over emphasis on everyone ‘looking the same,’ regardless of their role or whether they are desk based or performing physical work onboard,” she explains.
Other concerns have been raised about gender specific uniform items that apparently discriminate against women – Holland points to the fact that some female cabin crew have to wear a hat and even carry to pair of shoes with them. Male cabin crew don’t have the same requirments imposed on them.
In a recent survey of 7,500 cabin crew, around 86% of respondents said they did not want a hat to feature in a new uniform. One union described the hat as “outdated” and as serving no purpose or function. Crew say they are hot, uncomfortable and impractical.
On the other end of the spectrum, Holland says female employees who work in the airline’s cargo department have to wear men’s clothing because a female-fitted uniform was never designed.
In September, British Airways announced that Saville Row designer Ozwald Boateng had been lined up to create a new uniform for the airline’s 32,000 uniform wearers. The new uniform is expected to be revealed later this year but won’t be rolled out until 2020 – according to British Airways, employees have been closely involved in the development of the uniform but Holland claims her union has been denied any input.
Alex Cruz has previously said that he wants employees to feel “proud” wearing the new uniform.
The open letter comes at a time that an increasing number of airlines are reviewing and changing their grooming guidelines in light of shifting norms in society. Fellow Brit airline, Virgin Atlantic recently removed a requirement for women to wear makeup and this decision was quickly copied by Aer Lingus.
In the last few weeks, Norwegian faced a backlash that imposed a mandatory makeup rule on female staffers – the low-cost airline has since revoked that decision and now allows women to wear flat shoes if they choose.
Several years ago, female cabin crew on ‘Mixed Fleet’ contracts at British Airways had to submit a collective grievance to win the right to wear uniform trousers instead of the standard skirt. Holland says she would like the new Ozwald Boateng-designed uniform to be “interchangeable and varied”.